Bennett on his new, ‘old’ team: lots of experience, depth and more scoring power

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Media Relations

In one season’s time, Tony Bennett will have gone from coaching the “newest team” in his career to the “oldest.” Just how did that happen?

Last year, UVA welcomed two transfers, Armaan Franklin from Indiana and Jayden Gardner from East Carolina. While both had strong experience at their former programs, each was new to Bennett’s system, particularly his Pack-Line defense. Kadin Shedrick, who missed most of his previous season with injuries and illness, was stepping into a role with more responsibility, with little experience to back him up.

While Reece Beekman had played a lot as a true freshman, he was expected to up his game last season in the UVA backcourt.

That’s a lot of new.

Heading into Monday night’s season opener against visiting North Carolina Central, the Cavaliers suddenly got “old.”

Bennett will feature a squad with a trio of fifth-year players: point guard Kihei Clark, power forward Gardner, and Ohio U. transfer Ben Vander Plas. With the top six scorers from last year returning (the most experience returning in the nation) in addition to Vander Plas, the Cavaliers have proven players everywhere. Oh, but there’s youth, too, with a foursome of 4-star recruits ready to add depth where needed.

Unlike last year’s team, this one has quality depth. Bennett said this week that he has 12 or 13 guys who are good enough to play, but we all know that 12 or 13 guys are not going to play, leaving speculation that someone could redshirt.

Depth is one of two major differences in last year’s NIT squad and this year’s team, which enters the season with a No. 18 AP poll preseason ranking and a predicted finish of No. 3 in the ACC preseason poll, behind North Carolina and a very young Duke team. Last year, because of the lack of depth, several players were forced to play an abnormally high amount of minutes.

The other major difference is that heading into last season, everyone wondered where the scoring was going to come from, which proved to be a weakness and a blemish that cost the Cavaliers a chance to continue their long streak of NCAA tournament appearances.

This season, there might not be enough basketballs to go around.

Bennett said he learned that he had good playable depth on an August team trip to Italy, where the Cavaliers played four exhibition games. He purposely played nine, sat three players each game on a rotational basis, and saw there’s plenty of talent to go around.

“I’d like to say I think we shoot the ball a little better than last year,” the UVA coach said. “Obviously, that can come and go, but I think that’ll have to be a strength of ours.”

Certainly, there will be a lot of competition for court time.

“You’ve got to decide what your rotation is, how comfortable you are in terms of do you go nine-deep, 10, eight, some seven?” Bennett said about how some teams operate. “I think establishing that with this preseason (nonconference) part of the schedule, you’re going to have opportunities to see yourself in a lot of hotly contested or high-level games, and we’ll see how that plays out.”

Virginia plays is most challenging nonconference schedule in decades, including Baylor, UCLA or Illinois (in a four-team tournament in Las Vegas), Michigan and Houston.

“Some of it is how guys improve once you get into games, because some guys you don’t practice and all of a sudden get into games, and different things happen,” Bennett said. “You keep evaluating. We are hard and fast, an eight-man, nine-man rotation. Last year we were down to about six or seven.”

Last year’s 3-point shooting was an overall weakness, but Bennett believes that will improve. Because the Cavaliers weren’t that effective scoring from the perimeter, it had a negative impact on the inside game.

“Spacing is really important,” the coach said. “It’s the name of the game. I do think we have guys that have improved their shooting. It’s always about getting quality shots. But space matters, so guys can stretch the floor.”

Bennett said freshman sharpshooter Isaac McKneely is a strong 3-point shooter, and that Beekman has improved his shot, as has Franklin. Franklin, who was in a long slump last season, made an adjustment in his mechanics and began knocking down 3’s late in the campaign. Vander Plas can shoot the 3 as well.

“Time will tell what kind of shooting team we are, but I think we have improved our depth and our shooting,” said Bennett. “Making [3’s] certainly allows you to stretch the floor and to either let your guards get to the rim or drop it inside, so it makes a difference.”

Virginia should have more lineup versatility, because some of the new additions can play different positions. That should allow the Cavaliers to get mismatches at times, to rest starters and present problems for opposing teams.

“We have 12 guys that can play, and Chase Coleman (former walk-on) has done a good job for us,” Bennett said. “I told our guys, here’s our top seven right now. I said, ‘you top seven, any of you could start.’ I said to the other five, any of you could get into the top seven and a lot of you in that top seven could slide to the eight-through-13.

“The games will determine that, so flexibility, absolutely. You could go small or you could go big. You can shift some guys around. It’s going to be different guys at different times, and that’s something we did not have last year. We were pretty locked in. So I like the ability to do that.”

Bennett started the same players – he did not disclose what five – in the two “secret” scrimmages against Maryland and UConn, so he said depending on the opponent, there could be different guys at different times.

“Maryland and UConn are quality teams, and so it was good to go against them,” Bennett said. “What did we find out? I think it was just a continuation of the things we need to work on, areas where you got exposed, and we did some things well.

“You can throw guys in and look at them and not worry about crowds [watching], so let’s see how this combination does,” Bennett said. “I think having the European trip, we learned we have quality depth. We have a very experienced team, and then we have a very young team (the four freshmen). It’s almost two teams.

“You go against the UConn’s and the Maryland’s, you get a different taste of physicality on the glass. You’re running, trying to guard different actions, and it just shows you where you’ve got to go.”