The ACC as a whole has become a bit of a question mark season to season. North Carolina seems to be the poster boy of this wavering. Over the last couple of seasons, the Big Ten and Big XII have seemingly not only closed the gap, but surpassed the ACC as the premier basketball conference in the nation.
While North Carolina seems to be making strides towards a return to dominance, Virginia seems to be the historic ACC program in question heading into the 2021-22 season. Cavalier fans are as always loyal to the point of nausea but there are questions that need to be answered with this season’s team.
First of all, let’s just get it out of the way and say that Tony Bennett is the best coach in the nation. No “if you consider” or “with the exception of”s or any stipulations. Point, fact. Going into last season there were serious questions regarding the Cavaliers as well. After an early season loss to San Francisco and an ugly loss to Gonzaga, the Wahoos went on to finish first in the ACC standings.
While there are some parallels, especially coming from the guy that led the charge in doubting Virginia prior to the 2020-21season, things are different now.
Something that Coach Bennett did not have to do last season was replace his top three scorers. Sam Hauser, Jay Huff and Trey Murphy have all moved along as have Casey Morsell, Tomas Woldentensae and Justin McKoy.
The latter trio is only worth mentioning because they constitute the 6-8 leading scorers on last season’s team. This leaves just Kihei Clark and Reeece Beekman as staples from last season’s rotation that are set to return.
Now, it is obviously not all bad, this is Virginia we are talking about. Just as life will find a way, so will Tony Bennett. The way he found is becoming a more popular avenue than recruiting: the free agent market. Virginia was able to land former Indiana sharpshooter Armaan Franklin (11.4 ppg 42.4% 3pt%) and mid-major stud Jayden Gardner (18.8 ppg 8.3 rpg).
So what is the answer to the original question? What can we expect?
Similar to last season, Virginia has two big fat landmines on their way towards conference play. On November 16th, they will travel to Houston and will host the Iowa Hawkeyes on November 29th during the ACC/B1G Challenge.
Winning or simply splitting these two games should be considered a success. However, if they drop both and aren’t their typical dominant selves against their cupcakes, Virginia will once again become a popular topic amongst journalists and podcasters.
The biggest question mark for me is replacing the losses. Jayden Gardner, while fantastic, is certainly no Sam Hauser. That being said, the last time a player from ECU transferred to the ACC, he led the league in scoring (Elijah Hughes 2019-20). Franklin is a nice player that will provide fantastic shooting but he is a nice role player at most on a roster that needs creators.
We have yet to even address the loss of All-ACC performer Jay Huff. The expectation is that junior seven-footer Francisco Caffaro will step up in the starting role. Caffaro is a nice player, of that I am of similar opinion.
However, he has never averaged more than 8 minutes per game in a season and only played 10 minutes or more in a game in seven of 37 career games. Over his career, Caffaro has averaged 6.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per 40 minutes played, but only 0.9 blocks with 2.4 turnovers and 6.0 personal fouls.
Khadin Shedrick is a player that Virginia fans will point to, but he is unproven to say the very least.
My expectation is that Virginia will drop the game in Houston before winning seven in a row heading into ACC play. One of those seven is ACC member Pittsburgh but I am referring to actual league play.
In the end, Bennett is a good enough coach to get this team to the NCAA tournament but it’s doubtful that the Wahoos make it out of the first weekend alive. Expect Gardner to become a star that will provide some highlights at the rim. Clark will be a warrior and solidify himself in Virginia basketball lore along the way.
It’s Beekman that is interesting. If Reece is able to create easy opportunities for the Cavaliers to change floors and get some points in transition it will go a long way in making this a successful season in Charlottesville.