Coach Tony Bennett watched as his Virginia men’s basketball team smothered a strong No. 14 Texas A&M team in a 59-47 victory Nov. 29. But while Bennett’s presence is felt most often during the 40 minutes in front of the raucous crowd, his work outside the spotlight of the main court of John Paul Jones Arena was finally showing its merits in arguably the biggest game of the season so far.
This season, Bennett and his coaching staff face a difficult task — fusing a roster of new pieces, masking a glaring height deficiency and instilling a defensive identity that has, over the past few years, become less of a menacing proposition for opponents.
The last two weeks have created an opportunity for Bennett to experiment with different lineups. A demoralizing trip to the Fort Myers Tip-Off prompted a minor overhaul. Facing the interview room after getting pounded by Wisconsin, Bennett offered some wisdom about growth.
“It’s humbling to go through that,” Bennett said. “But this is a long game. This is, how can we get better, keep working. And we knew, with this inexperience, we’d face some of this, and we just gotta keep finding ways to take a step.”
They took a step — Bennett, it seems, found a way. A series of personnel changes have bolstered Virginia, contributing to the Texas A&M win and to the ensuing demolitions of Syracuse, 84-62, and North Carolina Central, 77-47.
Sophomore guard Andrew Rohde and graduate forward Jake Groves have entered the starting lineup, replacing freshman forward Blake Buchanan and junior guard Dante Harris, who is presently sidelined with an ankle sprain. Freshman guard Elijah Gertrude reversed his decision to redshirt, an unexpected but exciting turnaround.
Each change possesses its own rationale, intended either to counter a known issue or to cover one of the holes Fort Myers exposed.
Virginia has struggled, for one thing, from a lack of experience. Of the 10 players who average more than 8 minutes per game, seven are in their first season under Bennett, two are in their second and one is in his fourth.
The word “inexperience” has infiltrated Bennett’s vocabulary. He said it three times in his Oct. 30 preseason press conference. He said it after Wisconsin shelled Virginia. He said it after beating Texas A&M. Installing Groves meant combatting that inexperience, adding a veteran presence who could help jumpstart an inconsistent offense.
“Offensively, it’s been a challenge for us,” Bennett said after the Texas A&M game. “Just very inexperienced and all that. So [Groves] gives us a guy that stretches the floor. Not only him making some threes but opening up some lanes… And I just think, he’s played, he’s got the experience, and not many guys do.”
So Groves entered the starting lineup, most directly to replace Buchanan, whose production and minutes have plummeted. Buchanan stirred anticipation early in the season with an 18-point, seven-rebound performance against Florida but has averaged just 14 minutes and 3.2 points in the following six games.
Buchanan’s decline raises Bennett’s chief conundrum — the absence of a powerful interior presence. Buchanan, the natural but young option, has struggled. Graduate forward Jordan Minor, recruited out of the transfer portal as another interior player, has barely played, perhaps due to his undersized nature at just 6-foot-8.
The coaching staff, in response, has leaned into a smaller lineup, pushing aside Buchanan and Minor in favor of more consistent players.
But the small lineup leaves the Cavaliers severely undersized. In Fort Myers, both Wisconsin and West Virginia punished Virginia for its lack of strong interior play, bullying the Cavaliers on the boards by a combined 89-49 margin.
The height deficiency will remain an issue — extra inches will not suddenly materialize — especially in rebounding. But the Cavaliers have tweaked their rebounding tactics, reframing rebounding as a collective effort rather than a task delegated specifically to big men.
“It’s important for our guards to help rebound,” Groves said after the Texas A&M game. “A guy like myself, who is far undersized, playing the five against those guys — my job is maybe not to get the rebound myself but to make sure they don’t get the rebound.”
Virginia rebounded better against Texas A&M, losing the battle on the boards only 42-30, an improvement from Fort Myers’ gaping margins. Virginia then outrebounded Syracuse, 33-27, although winning that statistic is easier this year given the Orange are transitioning from a zone to man defense.
The convincing victories over Texas A&M and Syracuse have perhaps solidified faith in the new lineup. Bennett, it seems, has plucked the strings artfully.
He has also strengthened the roster by inserting Gertrude. The true freshman has engendered excitement in his first two games, anticipation mounting. He played 18 minutes against Syracuse, registering 6 points, 2 steals and one house-rattling dunk. He scored 13 points in 17 minutes against North Carolina Central.
“He’s gonna be great,” senior guard Reece Beekman said after the Syracuse game. “I could see it all over the summer and leading up to the season. He puts a lot of work in, and he got a lot that we can use this year. So that’s good that he’ll be out there with us.”
The decision to add Gertrude resonated well, just like Bennett’s other early-season personnel decisions. At the same time, and on a grander scale, Virginia’s defense has embarked on a fearsome campaign of suffocation. The Cavaliers have climbed to No. 4 in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings.
The dominant defense marks a return to old ways. For seven years, from 2014-2020, Virginia never finished worse than No. 7 in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. The defense went missing the last few years, Virginia finishing No. 36 in 2021, No. 59 in 2022 and No. 25 in 2023. The Cavaliers’ mainstay had peeled away. Now it seems to have returned.
Despite an early season that showed more roster experimentation than most Bennett-led teams, Virginia perches at 8-1, 1-0 in the ACC, and teetering just outside the AP Top 25. Virginia’s coaching staff has responded well to the challenges faced, whether that be Harris’ injury or the lack of a true “big man” emerging. But a long season remains, and Bennett will undoubtedly make more adjustments along the way.