Three freshmen emerged from the tunnel before Virginia men’s basketball’s season-opener against Tarleton State, wearing sweatpants and warmup jackets, trailing their teammates. They milled about, high-fiving players cycling through layup lines as their teammates warmed up.
Not long before, on his pregame radio show, Coach Tony Bennett had offered some intel. The three freshmen — guard Elijah Gertrude, forward Anthony Robinson and guard Christian Bliss — would redshirt, becoming Bennett’s latest redshirt cohort and maintaining a tradition that has yielded such stalwarts as De’Andre Hunter, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff and Devon Hall. But Gertrude, in an unexpected twist, played in Wednesday night’s game against Texas A&M, reversing the decision to redshirt because of depth concerns and his injury progression. Bennett confirmed after Virginia’s earlier game against North Carolina A&T that Desmond Roberts, a recruited walk-on, would also redshirt.
Recently, redshirting in college basketball has declined, becoming somewhat outdated. Only 10 of last season’s 66 ACC freshmen redshirted. But Bennett has persisted, establishing a blueprint — reaffirmed recently by redshirt freshman Leon Bond III — to shepherd players through a process that has become risky in the transfer portal era. After the Tarleton State victory, he explained some of his reasoning for his latest class of redshirts.
“We recommended that would be something that would probably bode well for their long-term future,” Bennett said. “And I think they all feel it’s the best right now.”
Redshirting, Bennett said, allows players to focus on practicing and acclimating to a new program, freeing them from the constraints of game preparation. Players can participate in scout team drills — where they act as opponents for the starters to practice against — furthering their knowledge of the opposing side.
“[Development] is something that happens when they get extra work during the season,” Bennett said. “Day of the game, they’re in the practice gym, getting extra lifts. But when they play on the scout team, or we call it our green team, they just get aggressive, and they kind of free up, and they can play without worrying about making so many mistakes.”
The Tarleton State game presented a gleaming example of redshirting’s merits when Bond, who seemed destined for a debut double-double, finished with 12 points and nine rebounds in 17 minutes.
Early in the second half, Bond threw down a monstrous putback dunk, sending the fans at John Paul Jones Arena into a frenzy. Bennett noticed Bond’s impact, praising him for galvanizing the team and igniting the crowd.
“For it being [Bond’s] first game, he redshirted last year, it was nice to see him out there giving us a lift that way,” Bennett said.
The situation showcased the duality of redshirting. It is, as Bond demonstrated and Bennett explained, a way to incubate a player. It is also, as Virginia fans experienced this offseason, something of an invitation for players to transfer, even though the intention of the coach is ultimately to ensure strong development.
Sophomore forward Isaac Traudt transferred to Creighton after redshirting alongside Bond last season. The 6-foot-10 forward, a four-star recruit, grew up in Nebraska, a couple hours’ drive from Creighton. The prospect of returning home, he said, tipped his decision to transfer.
Traudt said the redshirt did not ultimately cause his decision to transfer, but there is an undeniable correlation between redshirting and transferring. Of the 10 ACC freshmen who redshirted last season, five entered the transfer portal.
“It was a lot of other factors, some of them not even basketball-related,” Traudt said. “I’d definitely be making the same move even if I had played significant minutes.”
Two of the 10 freshmen who redshirted last year belonged to Bennett. One, Bond, has stirred excitement. The other, Traudt, disappeared. So Bennett’s recent redshirt announcement understandably generated mixed feelings — but none of the three decisions arrived entirely as a surprise.
Bliss had planned for this, reclassifying and leaving high school early specifically to redshirt. Robinson had committed late, making him seem like a possible candidate. Gertrude had missed his entire senior year of high school with a torn ACL, meaning redshirting could provide an extra year to reboot his game.
The idea seemed dangerous, especially with Traudt’s decision to decamp. A four-star recruit who ranks as the No. 6 shooting guard in his class typically expects to play right away. But the decision, Bennett always emphasizes, rests with the players. Bennett and his coaches merely make a recommendation.
“Missing his whole senior year with his knee surgery set him back a little bit,” Bennett said. “But, I’ll tell you, he shows flashes.”
Gertrude showed such flashes in the Blue-White Scrimmage, rhythmically navigating the court and facilitating offense, before draining a deep three-pointer at the buzzer. The performance, along with his development in practice, gave Bennett the confidence that Gertrude would be able to immediately play at the highest level.
"We're just talking about the depth and all that stuff and where we're at, and Elijah's leg is getting stronger and better," Bennett said after the game. "You saw him jump up, grab a rebound, block a shot and so it was just one of those situations where, even before it got to where we're talking about it, and then it made sense.”
The support for the remaining redshirts comes not only from the coaches, but from the players as well. Bond, for his part, has offered the new redshirts his wisdom.
“I just have been telling them — attack every day,” Bond said. “Understand that it’s a slow grind, and don’t get discouraged, because discouragement is a loss of perspective. I told them that you got to understand these workouts are not for nothing, and they’re all just going to add up. So when you touch down the first game, it’ll pay off.”
The decision to redshirt paid off for Bond. He is, according to kenpom.com, a “significant contributor” thus far, one of four Virginia players used on greater than 20 percent of possessions. The sample size, of course, remains minute. Bond’s minutes nosedived in Virginia’s battle with Florida with Bennett chopping the rotation down to eight players and giving Bond only four minutes.
But the minutes and the iridescence returned against North Carolina A&T, when in 19 minutes Bond scored a team-high 16 points. He played a crucial role a week later in a narrow win over West Virginia, scoring eight points and grabbing seven rebounds in 21 minutes.
Bond reached this point through careful application of Bennett’s blueprint for redshirting, one refined through years of practice. Bennett plans to redeploy that blueprint for his latest redshirt cohort. All three prospects have potential to become solid contributors for the Cavaliers — they were initially recruited for a reason. But in a time of mass movement across schools, Bennett’s stable approach still seems to be attractive to a set of players.