Returning starters expected to get bulk of minutes this season for Virginia

By Scott Ratcliffe

Virginia guads Kihei Clark and Armaan Franklin share a laugh at a recent practice. (Photo: UVA Athletics)

With Virginia’s men’s basketball season on the horizon, Tony Bennett’s roster will feature a little more depth in 2022-23. With all five starters returning, plus a talented grad transfer and four freshmen joining the team in the offseason, how exactly will the remaining minutes be spread?

As mentioned, junior guard Reece Beekman (started all 35 games), graduate guard Kihei Clark (started all 35 games), senior guard Armaan Franklin (started all but one game), fifth-year forward Jayden Gardner (started all 35 games) and junior Kadin Shedrick (started 19 of 35 games) should all be back in the starting lineup, and figure to eat up the majority of the team’s minutes again this season.

In 2021-22, Clark (team-high 36 minutes per outing), Beekman (35.1 mpg) and Gardner (32.7 mpg) hardly ever left the floor, while Franklin averaged 29.5 minutes and Shedrick averaged 20.8.

Coming into last season, Clark was the only one of the starters with more than one full year in the program, as Beekman was a sophomore, Shedrick had to redshirt a season while dealing with injuries, and Gardner (East Carolina) and Franklin (Indiana) transferred in.

Bennett referred to last year’s group as the “newest” he had ever coached. Now with a full season under their belts collectively, the experience factor should increase exponentially.

Despite that relative inexperience, last year’s team finished 21-14 overall and 12-8 in the ACC (6th-place finish, NIT quarterfinals appearance), and the Cavaliers lost just one significant contributor to graduation in the offseason in guard Kody Stattmann, who is now playing professionally in Australia’s NBL. He averaged 15.8 minutes per contest off the bench for the Cavaliers last season.

In addition to his departure, four other UVA reserves — Igor Milicic Jr. (Charlotte), Carson McCorkle (Wofford), Malachi Poindexter (Illinois State) and Jayden Nixon (Johns Hopkins) — all transferred out of the program. Those four combined for a total of just 300 minutes played last season (out of 7,025), however, or about 5.7 minutes a game.

Ben Vander Plas (left) goes up against new teammate Jayden Gardner in practice. (Photo: UVA Athletics)

So where will those extra minutes go? Ohio grad-transfer forward Ben Vander Plas joins the Wahoo rotation this fall after starting all 35 games for the Bobcats last season. In 35.3 minutes a contest a year ago, Vander Plas (6-foot-8, 236 pounds) put up 14.3 points and a team-best 6.8 rebounds per game, to go along with 3.1 assists a night. He figures to see the floor a ton in 2022-23, along with 7-footer Francisco Caffaro, who split time with Shedrick down low, starting 16 games for the Hoos with an average of 17.7 minutes per game.

UVA sophomore guard Taine Murray (6-5, 205), who saw 7.7 minutes on average in 19 games, could very well slide into a similar role that Stattmann had last season.

That leaves a talented group of first-years and a pair of walk-ons — senior guard Chase Coleman and junior forward Tristan How — to divide up any remaining playing time.

Bennett recently told Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports that guard Isaac McKneely is the most likely of the four freshmen to get some burn, simply because of his position on the floor.

McKneely, at 6-4, 179, is capable of playing both guard positions as well as small forward, but is more of a natural off-ball shooting guard with valid 3-point range with accuracy. He is battling for minutes with Franklin and Murray at the 2-spot.

In addition, McKneely’s high school team, Poca (W.Va.), played Pack-Line defense, which should help him transition fairly quickly to Bennett’s defensive system.

The other three freshmen — Isaac Traudt, Leon Bond III and Ryan Dunn — will each have several players ahead of them in the pecking order. There is usually a substantial period of adjustment for first-year players who are getting used to the speed and the pace of the college game, while also integrating into the Pack-Line and knowing where to be on the floor.

From left: Isaac McKneely, Isaac Traudt, Ryan Dunn and Leon Bond III. (Photo: UVA Athletics)

As is always the case on a Bennett-coached team, playing time for the newcomers will depend heavily on how long it takes to become acclimated enough defensively to not be a liability on the floor, regardless of other abilities and talents.

That being said, all four youngsters can score, rebound and shoot the long ball, and each got a few chances to show their stuff during the team’s four-game preseason trip to Italy in August. Now it’s up to them to continue to absorb and improve as much as possible in practice over the upcoming weeks in order to make a case for playing time.

It’s undeniable that there is immense potential in the Class of ‘22, but just how much floor time will they see collectively this season? Will any of them be redshirted? In the event of an injury (or injuries) to the experienced starters, who would step up? Luckily for UVA hoops fans, the season opener is less than a month away (Nov. 7 vs. North Carolina Central), and all of those questions will be revealed in due time.