Scattershooting: Bennett challenging, Tar Heels hurting, Eli’s coming and lots of golden nuggets

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Scattershooting around Virginia athletics with a few tricks and treats …

A week from tonight, Tony Bennett will launch a new basketball season against — in his own words — the most challenging nonconference schedule of his Virginia career. Some college hoops heavyweights appear on the card with Baylor and either UCLA or Illinois in Vegas, Michigan in Ann Arbor and Houston (here).

Virginia, ranked No. 18 in AP’s preseason poll and either second or third in the ACC, depending on what voting you choose to follow, has scheduled aggressively because the Cavaliers should be good. The top six scorers return from last year, plus Bennett has added Ohio U. graduate transfer Ben Vander Plas and four talented freshmen (all rated 4-star recruits).

“I just wanted to test ourselves,” Bennett said in Charlotte at the ACC’s basketball media day a couple weeks ago. “I know that [two years ago] we went and played Gonzaga and got our doors blown off, and [last season] we went to Houston (and also got their doors blown off).

“No matter what, you have to put your team in spots like that, whether you think your team is going to be up at the top or wherever. I feel like this team does have experience and guys want to play in those [kind of] games.”

Bennett believes there are more pluses than minuses in playing a challenging schedule, that if his team has success, there will be huge dividends and national attention in November and December. If they fall short, then it provides the Cavaliers an opportunity to grow as a team.

“Because there’s such powerful teams, it’s different,” Bennett said. “It prepares you for conference play and there’s a big upside with success in those games. If you can’t get them, it’s not the end of the world.”

UVA opens with North Carolina Central next Monday at John Paul Jones Arena (9 p.m.). Central is not a powerhouse, but gives the Cavaliers someone to play against in a different-color jersey. The big boys will be popping up on the schedule soon enough.

“Can you overwhelm a team and play too much [of a tough schedule]? We’ll find out, maybe you can,” said Bennett, whose team will also play the 20-game ACC schedule with FSU, Miami and Georgia Tech all in December.

Bennett and Ronnie Wideman, his associate AD for basketball administration/operations who’s in charge of scheduling, started working on this slate of games back in the spring.

“It sounded like a good idea, and you sit there and then you’re thinking, ‘What are we doing?’ I always have the final say unless things don’t go well, and then it’s someone else’s fault,” Bennett laughed. “Maybe I’m influenced by my father (former coach Dick Bennett), who said play the best and see where you’re at, kind of like Michigan State.”

Tar Heels Hurting

The South’s Oldest Rivalry will renew this Saturday at Scott Stadium when North Carolina comes to town for a noon showdown with Virginia (ACC Network). But the Tar Heels are banged up.

UNC announced Monday that they have lost three players for the rest of the season, including former UVA linebacker Noah Taylor, the Tar Heels’ leading sack man on the season. Taylor, who transferred from Charlottesville to Chapel Hill in the offseason, was Carolina’s leading edge rusher. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in Saturday’s win over Pitt.

Taylor isn’t the only loss, though. Defensive end Des Evans and running back Caleb Hood have also suffered season-ending injuries.

Heels coach Mack Brown, who has stacked back-to-back great recruiting classes together, believes that his program is now capable of persevering through injuries.

“To handle the injuries we’ve been hit with here at the end, is that recruiting is going to save us,” Brown said Monday. “We couldn’t have done this our first year.”

Eli’s Coming

Just like in the “Three Dog Night” ballad, Eli’s coming … to Virginia basketball commitment Elijah Gertrude from Jersey City, N.J., will be a guest on our podcast either Tuesday night or Wednesday morning (depending on turnaround time … check Twitter updates for post time).

Gertrude will be introduced on the podcast by former Cavalier guard Doug “Fresh” Smith, who also lives in Jersey City and has seen Gertrude play several times. In fact, it was Smith who told me long before Gertrude picked Virginia over Kansas and other schools that, “UVA hasn’t had a player like Elijah during Tony Bennett’s era.”

Fresh was certainly correct, in that recruiting service rankings advanced Gertrude all the way to the No. 36 player overall in the nation in the recruiting class of 2023, the highest-rated recruit in the Bennett era. Gertrude is also rated the No. 3 shooting guard in the country by consensus.

The 6-foot-3 guard is a 4-star prospect.

“He’s a freak athletically,” said Gertrude’s high school coach, Nick Merinello. “The way he dunks … his elevation to the rim is at another level. It comes out of nowhere and you’re kind of in awe of it when you see it transform and see the plays he can make.”

Elliott Recruiting Nick Jackson

A veteran college football coach said recently during a national TV broadcast that the recruiting game has obviously changed with the transfer portal, and coaches now have to divide their recruiting efforts to three areas: digging for high school prospects, monitoring the transfer portal and recruiting their own locker room in terms of keeping their current players happy (or else, they might hit the road via the portal).

We asked Tony Elliott how he goes about this challenge, and other than the coaching staff, how many personnel does he have in his recruiting department.

“Outside the staff, we have six individuals that are in the recruiting department and we have some student help as well,” Elliott said. “Your student help fluctuates depending on their availability, but you’ve got six individuals that are helping you identify, communicate and do a lot of the background work.

“Then you have 10 assistants and myself that have the areas that will be the primary point of contact for the young men. Once we establish the relationship, then the recruiting folks will come side-by-side with us and it will be more of a team effort. Pretty much every night, you’re doing something with the high school guys from a communication standpoint, talking to them, texting with them, talking on Twitter.”

The transfer portal requires monitoring when things begin to heat up, and Elliott has to project needs based on who’s returning.

“We’re planning on if we take three out of position, I’ll determine, OK, I want two high school guys and one grad transfer to kind of keep the pipeline flowing, but then also get some experience.”

And his own locker room?

“I think the way you recruit the locker room is to have a healthy culture first and foremost,” Elliott said. “You play the guys that deserve to play. And I spend a little bit of time every day recruiting Nick Jackson. I told him today, you’ve got another year … you’re coming back. We don’t even need to have this conversation at the end of the year, so don’t even think about it. I’m telling you right now, you’re coming back.”

Jackson was just named ACC Linebacker of the Week.

Short yardage …

  • How about this … three former Wahoos, James Farrior, Heath Miller and D’Brickashaw Ferguson, will all be inducted into their NFL teams’ ring of honor this month — Farrior and Miller with the Steelers, Ferguson with the Jets.
  • Congratulations are also in order to former UVA All-American and All-Pro offensive guard Elton Brown upon the birth of his son, Elton Brown Jr., who weighed in at 8 pounds, 2 ounces. A future Wahoo lineman no doubt.
  • Jayden “Juke” Harris, a four-star wing from Salisbury High School in North Carolina, recruiting class of 2024, trimmed his list of schools to 12 on Monday: Virginia, Tennessee, Clemson, Wake Forest, NC State, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Houston, Mississippi State, LSU, Georgetown and Texas A&M.
  • Virginia’s offense is averaging 21 points less per game than it did through eight games a year ago, the biggest drop by any school in the Power 5.
  • Danny Neckel with this nugget about Coach Rud’s defense: Virginia and Iowa are the only two college football teams that have not allowed at least seven plays of 30 yards or more this season. What a turnaround that has been.
  • Was saddened by the death of Hall of Fame coach Vince Dooley over the weekend. He welcomed me into his office for an hour-long chat back in the summer of 1987, weeks before George Welsh’s Cavaliers would open their season “Between the Hedges.” Dooley, whose son, Derek, played for UVA, was most hospitable that day, but not so much to the Wahoos on Sept. 5 when the Dawgs beat Virginia, 30-22. It was Dooley who brought it up that day, that the worst loss of his career was a 31-0 whitewashing by UVA in 1979 (31-0) in Athens. Dick Bestwick coached that Cavaliers team, which went 6-5 that season. It was an honor for me to share the stage with Dooley a couple of years ago at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta to honor Bestwick at a memorial by former Georgia, Georgia Tech and UVA players and coaches.
  • Virginia’s 2023 UVA Baseball Hall of Fame class: Ernie Clement (2015-17), Kyle Crockett (2011-13), Adam Haseley (2015-17), Joe Hicks (1951-53) and Pavin Smith (2015-17). You can celebrate their induction at the annual Step Up to the Plate event on Jan. 21.
  • Fans might be upset that UVA games are kicking off at noon, but the Cavaliers are getting lots of exposure according to data by Per Sports Media Watch. Their numbers have the early noon games barely trailing the mid-afternoon games in terms of viewers, and way more than night games.
  • Kon Knueppel, a Wisconsin product from the recruiting class of 2024, will officially visit Virginia basketball for the Duke game at JPJ in February.
  • Oh, and according to our spies, Virginia men’s basketball won its two “secret scrimmages” against Maryland and UConn.