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With a new star at the helm, Tony Bennett and company will be just fine

As Reece Beekman departs to the professional ranks, Elijah Gertrude is ready to take the reigns of Cavalier basketball

<p>Some analysts have claimed the era of successful Virginia basketball is over, but in Gertrude’s mind, a new renaissance is on the horizon.</p>

Some analysts have claimed the era of successful Virginia basketball is over, but in Gertrude’s mind, a new renaissance is on the horizon.

Virginia men’s basketball continues to go through another period of uncertainty. Redshirt freshman forward Leon Bond III has already departed via the transfer portal, and redshirt junior guard Dante Harris officially left Friday. Senior guard Reece Beekman and sophomore guard Ryan Dunn — both of whom officially declared for the draft Wednesday and Tuesday, respectively — are probable NBA Draft selections, and the Cavaliers could still lose more contributors to the transfer portal. Many are frustrated with Coach Tony Bennett’s program — punctuated by a blowout loss to Colorado State in the First Four — but there is cause for hope. Talented underclassmen are on the rise, especially freshman guard Elijah Gertrude.

A four-star recruit from the high school class of 2023, the 6-foot-4 guard possesses elite athleticism — not dissimilar from his teammate, Beekman. Gertrude played sparingly this season but is first in line to be a major contributor for Bennett in the 2024-25 season. Gertrude discussed his Virginia experience thus far in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. 

“U.Va. just felt like the right place to be,” Gertrude said. “It’s a family and I felt it in my heart. Everyone is genuine, top to bottom. Academic staff, coaches, players, everything is connected.”

Initially planning to redshirt due to a logjam at the guard position and his recovery from a torn achilles injury, Gertrude eventually recovered and played in 16 games this season. Gertrude’s injury occurred just one game into his senior season of high school basketball, sidelining him for essentially the entire campaign. As he began his collegiate career, recovering and donning a Virginia uniform became both a source of pride and a reminder of gratitude. 

“When I get out there, I give it my all,” Gertrude said. “A lot of people don't get the chance to play at this level. I know some amazing players who didn't get this chance, so I'm going to make the most of it. You never know when it's your last time playing. I am going to go out there and give it my all for my guys.”

The Cavaliers went through a rollercoaster season — reaching the heights of an eight-game conference win streak but also being blown out by over 15 points several times. Still, earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament presents an argument for a solidly successful season. 

“Achieving what we did as a team this year, there were a lot of ups and downs,” Gertrude said. “A lot of people counted us out, but we just stayed at it. We kept putting the work in and there’s a lot more in the future. The group of guys that we have, top to bottom, is a great group.”

Athleticism aside, Gertrude also garners Beekman comparisons for his poised speech. Gertrude’s team-first mindset and wisdom — shown through his willingness to initially redshirt — are extremely impressive considering he played sparingly as a freshman. Additionally, it is important to remember that Bennett rarely plays true freshmen, and Gertrude participating in 16 games is highly notable. Even though he only averaged 3.4 points per game, in-game experience is unsubstitutable for a player’s growth.  

“It helps a lot to be out there and see what it's really like,” Gertrude said. “At the end of the day, you learn from the mistakes you make. There were a couple games where I went out and looked like a freshman, but I have learned to bounce back and do what I know how to do.”

Bennett himself is a core part of player growth and has faced unprecedented scrutiny for a handful of early postseason exits over the past few seasons. A handful of transfers have departed in each of the past few seasons, but Gertrude is fully committed to the veteran coach Bennett and a staff that is still highly respected in the greater college basketball landscape.

“This staff is amazing,” Gertrude said. “At the end of the day, they just know basketball. Coach Bennett played in the NBA, and most coaches have not. Our coaches find a way to get everyone involved, make a good gameplan, and recruits can look forward to a staff that is gonna invest in them and develop them. If you put the work in, they will be there for you and help you grow as a player and as a man.”

As the program adapts to life sans-Beekman and others, Gertrude’s talents are all the more valuable. Throughout this season though, Beekman has actually helped Gertrude prepare to take the driver’s seat on offense.

“With Reece, you haven't seen anyone like him,” Gertrude said. “He's just different … We went at it a lot one-on-one in practice, and learning from him was incredibly helpful. He's been here, he knows the system, he knows how things work. Being able to learn and watch will help me a lot.”

Some analysts have claimed the era of successful Virginia basketball is over, but in Gertrude’s mind, a new renaissance is on the horizon, one brought on by persistence and a refusal to give in. With this mindset, the Cavaliers plan to surprise the doubters and take college basketball by storm in 2024-25.

“‘Just keep knocking,’ as Coach Bennett says. When he says it, he means it,” Gertrude said. “When you get knocked down, you get back up and just keep going. Never give up. God has a plan for you, so just keep putting the work in and it'll pay off.”

A slew of other talented recruits are going to join Gertrude soon. Freshman guard Christian Bliss redshirted this year and figures to be a meaningful contributor — plus incoming recruits guard Ishan Sharma and forward Jacob Cofie also add promising talent into the mix.

“It's gonna be an exciting year,” Gertrude said. “I look forward to getting out there and doing what I can to help the team win. A lot of our guys here feel that way, I can't wait for the season.”

Led by Gertrude, a relatively young core could emerge as a conference powerhouse come November. Fans will surely be sad to see program legends depart, but none should forget that Gertrude, Bennett and staff are going to eventually become serious contenders in the ACC for the 2024-25 season and beyond. 

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