Virginia will have something rare in college basketball — experience

Virginia will have something rare in college basketball — experience

CHARLOTTE — Following a season in which the Virginia men’s basketball team fell well short of the standard Coach Tony Bennett established since taking over 14 years ago, the Cavaliers sought to regroup over the summer during a one-week trip to Italy that included four exhibition games .

They came back to Charlottesville not only with a 3-1 record but also even more inspired to reclaim their standing as one of the preeminent programs in the country after settling for an appearance in the NIT attributable in part to a roster that lacked experience and quality depth.

This season’s group, on the other hand, comprises five starters back in addition to an infusion of reinforcements featuring transfer Ben Vander Plas and a freshman class Bennett indicated has developed exponentially thanks to spending extended time together internationally.

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“It was a great experience,” Virginia guard Kihei Clark said Wednesday during ACC media day. “I think as a team, just to be able to have those 10 days before the trip, official practice, get to go two hours full board is really important, just to be ahead of the of a lot of teams who don’t get to practice like that.”

Schools are permitted to travel abroad for exhibition games every four years, although the coronavirus pandemic interfered with that schedule.

Before this past summer, the Cavaliers’ last overseas trip was to Spain in 2016, providing an invaluable bonding opportunity for members of the team that went on to win the school’s first and only national championship in 2019.

Clark was a freshman that season and recalled how close players such as Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter, the nucleus that spurred the Cavaliers to the national title, grew on the heels of coming back from Spain, where Bennett was able to provide additional instruction regarding the pack-line defense.

Connectivity throughout the regular rotation also yielded one of the most memorable sequences in program history during the NCAA tournament’s regional final when Clark chased down a loose ball and passed to Mamadi Diakite, whose jumper at the buzzer forced overtime against Purdue.

Virginia then secured an 80-75 victory to advance to the Final Four in Minneapolis.

“Kihei and I have been together forever, right, which is a good thing, a great thing,” Bennett said. “Last year our depth wasn’t great, and we probably didn’t shoot the ball at the level we needed to, so we tried to improve in those areas, but experience is golden, I think, in college basketball, and we have that.”

A chance to pursue another national championship contributed to Clark’s decision to come back for a fifth year. So too did lengthy conversations with Bennett and teammates, including Jayden Gardner, the Cavaliers’ leading scorer last season.

Gardner transferred to Virginia from East Carolina before the start of 2021-22, and while his midrange jumper, soft touch around the rim and rebounding at both ends benefited the Cavaliers immediately, his comfort level with the pack line took significantly longer to flourish.

Gardner’s command of Bennett’s signature defensive alignment since has reached a level of expertise to where new teammates, particularly those in the frontcourt, have been seeking Gardner’s insights into guarding one-on-one, rotating to the help side and positioning in the painted area.

“I think this year, just the defense slowing down for me and getting accused to it and knowing where to be and also encouraging the young guys as they go through their first year because I went through it,” Gardner said. “I think that’s been a big step for my development on the defensive end, being ahead of the game, ahead of the curve, so I’m excited for this team.”

Virginia’s other starters in addition to Gardner and Clark are upperclassmen as well. Guard Armaan Franklin, a transfer last year from Indiana, is a senior, forward-center Kadin Shedrick is a redshirt junior, and point guard Reece Beekman is a junior.

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Vander Plas, a projected top reserve in the frontcourt, arrives from Ohio University as a graduate student, and Argentine center Francisco Caffaro, a redshirt senior, started at times last season.

The only freshman expected to receive significant playing time is Isaac McKneely, a 6-foot-4 guard twice named West Virginia’s Gatorade Player of the Year. McKneely is also familiar with the pack line, having played a defense with similar principles in high school.

“Me personally, this probably is the oldest team maybe that I’ve had,” Bennett said. “I think why Virginia and even where I was before either as an assistant or head coach, Washington State and other stops, we’ve had mature teams, teams that have had guys in their upperclassmen years that have grown through the experience of playing. Again, that’s always been the formula.”

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