Key Departures: Sam Hauser (Grad); Jay Huff (Grad); Trey Murphy (NBA); Casey Morsell (–>NC St); Tomas Woldentensae (Grad); Justin McKoy (àUNC)
New In Town: Armaan Franklin (<–Indiana); Jayden Gardner (<–E. Carolina); Taine Murray (#86); Igor Milicic Jr (<–Croatia)
State of the Program:
Once again Tony Bennett took a roster that was less talented than much of the rest of the ACC and went ahead and took home the regular season crown. They fell in the 1st round after going on a Covid related pause which is a hurdle not many teams could get over. This season looks to be one of the more difficult of Bennett’s career as there has been a lot of people leave the program, which is rather unusual during Bennett’s tenure. They really only get back 2 regular rotation pieces from last year’s team Kihei Clark (SR) and Reece Beekman (SO) who should be the starting backcourt for Bennett this season. They have a few other scholarship players who are returning who will have to contribute, including Kadin Shedrick (SO), Francisco Caffaro (SR), Carson McCorkle (SO) and Kody Stattmann (SR) who all played limited minutes a season ago but will have to step up this season. The real scoring threats are gone, and Bennett has turned to the transfer portal to help buoy this offense, but expectations will have to be tapered down for this group especially early on.
There are 2 transfers coming in who will likely both start and could wind up being the leading scorers for this team. The first is Indiana transfer wing Armaan Franklin (JR), who flashed a ton of promise as a scorer with the Hoosiers and will have a chance to be the featured option at the 3 for the Hoos. He is a capable scorer at all 3 levels, and shot 42% from 3 a season ago as he took major strides in his SO campaign. He will be challenged to step up defensively in this system but he nevertheless will be incredibly important offensively for Bennett. The other is F Jayden Gardner (SR), who for 3 seasons has been one of the best PF’s in the American Conference. He was a 2x All-AAC averaging 18 ppg and 9 rpg over 3 season’s as an undersized PF for E. Carolina. He excels in the paint, and despite his lack of size he uses his strength and feel for the game to get whatever shot he wants and is efficient from the line as well. Gardner and Franklin will provide a 1-2 punch in the inside out game and their effectiveness will ultimately determine how successful this team is. There’s 2 European Freshmen incoming, led by SG Taine Murray (#86) who comes in via New Zealand as a multi-dimensional offensive weapon, as he is able to finish acrobatically and with creativity at the rim but also is an excellent shooter coming off of screens. He’s the perfect recruit for Tony Bennett in terms of his off-ball movement and abilities as a catch and shooter. His ability to drive and finish off the bounce makes him a very difficult cover because he can torch you if you get up in him. If he is able to defend adequately he will get a lot of playing time due to his offensive abilities. The last newcomer comes via Croatia in Igor Milicic Jr. He’s hard to find tape on but he’s 6’10” and profiles as a stretch F who has good handles and vision as a passer. He will need time to develop but given the lack of offensive abilities off the bench he may get run as a backup this season. He’ll battle with Stattmann as the backup 4.
What Tony Bennett never fails to do is churn out competitive teams and he rarely misses the NCAA tournament, having not missed the dance since 2013. I don’t foresee this team being the one to break the streak, as the core of Clark, Beekman, Franklin and Gardner will be enough firepower to win a lot of games in Bennett’s system. There few things in the sport as reliable as Virginia, as they will be one of the slowest team’s in the country and will muck up the game and make life miserable for opposing offenses. Last season was Virginia’s worst defensive performance since 2011 as they were 36th after being top 10 7 seasons in a row. They will have to improve on that end, but the lack of depth and talent at the 5 will be a challenge in that area. Shedrick likely starts there with Caffaro backing him up, but neither of them have ever played major minutes. The elite Virginia teams have had guys like Malcolm Brogdon, Kyle Guy, and De’Andre Hunter among other NBA talent that doesn’t appear to be on this roster. That will be what limits them this season, as I see them still beating up on the bottom of the ACC but they will not have the weapons to take down the best of the best in the Country. Somewhere in the 4-6 seed line is where I would expect them to fall this season, as they likely out execute and out grind enough teams to be dancing once again.