By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — University of Virginia head coach Tony Bennett is well aware that non-conference games with such marquee opponents as Baylor, Michigan, Houston and either Illinois or UCLA await his 18th-ranked basketball team. He also remembers the Cavaliers’ 2021-22 opener.

In front of a disbelieving crowd at John Paul Jones Arena, Navy upended Virginia 66-58.

“I remember that awfully well,” Bennett said during UVA’s media day this week. “So we’ll just worry about Monday night and get as ready as we can, because I know that’s a well-coached outfit and a good team.”

In the second game of a doubleheader at JPJ, Bennett’s team opens the season, his 14th at Virginia, against North Carolina Central at 9 p.m. Monday. (The UVA women’s team hosts George Washington at 5 p.m.)

Last season marked the first time in nearly a decade that an NCAA tournament was held without UVA in the field. In 2012-13, the Wahoos advanced to the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals, and they reached that round again in 2021-22. In between, Virginia participated in every NCAA tournament and captured the national championship in 2019.

There’s reason to be confident the Hoos will return to the NCAAs come March. From a team that finished 21-14 last season, the top six scorers are back: forward Jayden Gardner (15.3 ppg), guards Arman Franklin (11.1) Kihei Clark (10.0) and Reece Beekman (8.2), and post players Kadin Shedrick (6.9) and Francisco Caffaro (4.3).

Gardner made the All-ACC third team last season, and Beekman, who led the Cavaliers in assists and steals, was named to the conference’s all-defensive team.

To that nucleus, Virginia has added five newcomers: graduate student Ben Vander Plas, who was an All-Mid-American Conference performer at Ohio, and a highly regarded freshman class consisting of swingman Leon Bond III, forwards Ryan Dunn and Isaac Traudt, and guard Isaac McKneely.

The Cavaliers got a jump on the season in August, when they played four games during a tour of Italy. The first two, against Italian teams Stella Azzurra and Orange1 Basket, were blowout victories for UVA. The Hoos split the final two games, both of which were against Basketball Club Mega MIS, a professional team from Serbia whose starters included two NBA prospects.

The summer trip provided valuable information to the coaching staff, as did Virginia’s closed scrimmages against Maryland and Connecticut last month. Bennett has seen enough of his team to know “we do have quality depth. I’d like to say we shoot the ball a little better than last year, although that obviously can come and go.”

Only seven players averaged more than 7.5 minutes per game for Virginia last season. This team is much deeper, and competition for playing time figures to be intense.

Virginia has 14 players on its roster, including walk-on forward Tristian How, and “they’re not [all] going to play, so there’s going to have to be some patience,” Bennett said.

The size of the Cavaliers’ rotation tends to vary from season to season. “Last year, we got down to about a six-and-half, seven-man [rotation],” Bennett said, “and the year before was more.”

During one practice this fall, Bennett called his team together and singled out seven players. “I said, ‘You top seven, any of you could start. You other five, any of you could get into the top seven, and a lot of you in the top seven could slide to the 8-12, or 13 [range].’ Again, the games will determine that … There’s just going to be different guys at different times, and that’s something we did not have last year. We were pretty locked in, and so I like the ability to [expand the rotation].”

The list of players who redshirted early in their UVA careers includes Shedrick and Caffaro, as well as former starters Devon Hall, De’Andre Hunter, Jay Huff and Jack Salt. One or more of the current freshmen could choose that route.

“Certainly, you’ll have those conversations, I always do that, as you get into this week,” Bennett said. “You always talk about it. Some guys, they say, ‘This is what I want to do.’ You leave it up to them. But I think as a head coach, as a staff, you look at players and you say, ‘Here’s what I see. How do you feel about these scenarios?’ I’m big on saying, ‘Here’s the best-case scenario.’ ”

He smiled. “Most people can handle best-case scenarios, I’ve found that in my life.”

Bennett also lays out other scenarios, including ones that involve little playing time, and asks players what they think. “Again, I wish you could look into a crystal ball and say, ‘This is how many minutes you’re going to get, this is what’s going to happen,’ ” Bennett said, but that’s not possible.

This might be the oldest team Bennett has coached. His roster includes one sixth-year senior (Vander Plas), three fifth-year seniors (Clark, Gardner and Caffaro), two fourth-year seniors (Franklin and Chase Coleman), and one redshirt junior (Shedrick). For the freshmen, opportunities for more playing time are likely to abound in 2023-24, and redshirting this season might be an attractive option.

“We’ve got a great track record of both ways: guys that have redshirted and what it’s done for them, and guys that have gotten a little bit of time [as freshmen] and been more ready the next year,” Bennett said. “So that’s going to be I think some of the conversations we have for guys to think about. I’ll be okay with whatever our guys decide, but I’ll try to give my advice.”

Reece Beekman (2) and Kihei Clark

CHANGING LANDSCAPE: The advent of Name, Image and Likeness deals for student-athletes is transforming college athletics, including men’s basketball.

“I think it’s great,” Bennett said. “I think there’s good opportunities for young men, so I have no problem with it. It’s just if that becomes the main thing and we get consumed with that, then I think that would not be [good]. What’s great about Virginia, what’s great, I think, about our program, is you can kind of have it all here. I talk about that a lot: the experience on the court, improving, hopefully being a part of a winning team, your academic experience, your social experience, and growing together.”

His players have had and will continue to have NIL opportunities, Bennett said, but “if it ever gets out of bounds or out of whack for our program, that will be a bad sign. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong for guys to pursue that or have opportunities. But if it just becomes all-consuming or that’s the one thing, then I think it’s not in the right place.”

During the recruiting process, Bennett said, he and his assistants make clear that there will “be opportunities, but if that is your main thing—‘Where I can get the best NIL deal only?’— and it’s not about the whole, what UVA has to offer, what this program does, the kind of people [here], then we’ve got to talk about that and see.”

Bennett’s record at UVA is 316-117. He believes the program has a strong foundation and stands for the right things. “Regardless of great success or not, this program is built on stuff that has lasted, and I’m grateful for that,” Bennett said. “And whenever that day comes when I’m not here, I’ll know that it was built on the right stuff.”

EXCUSED ABSENCE: The 7-foot-1 Caffaro will miss the Cavaliers’ second game, next Friday night against Monmouth at JPJ, for a good reason. He’s leaving Tuesday to join Argentina’s national team ahead of its game against the Dominican Republic on Thursday. He’ll be en route back to Charlottesville during the Monmouth game.

Argentina is close to qualifying for next year’s FIBA World Cup, and its head coach, Minnesota Timberwolves assistant Pablo Prigioni, wants to bolster his team’s frontcourt.

“The last game we played against the D.R., I wasn’t there,” said Caffaro, who trained with the national team over the summer, “and we struggled a lot with rebounding. That was the main issue in that game, so he kind of wanted me to go and get more experience with the team, but also to help maybe secure this game if possible, especially on the rebounding side.”

Caffaro, who’s now 22, was the second-youngest player on his national team’s roster at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. He didn’t play much for Argentina, which lost to Australia in the quarterfinal, but it was a valuable experience. Most of his teammates had professional experience, including Luis Scola, who played in the NBA for 10 seasons.

“He could be my dad,” Caffaro, smiling, said of Scola, who’s 42. “It’s great to see how some of these players operate.”

Armaan Franklin

SETTLING IN: Gardner, a 6-foot-6 forward, and Franklin, a 6-foot-4 guard, joined the program as transfers last year. Gardner spent his first three seasons at East Carolina, and Franklin played at Indiana as a freshman and sophomore. In addition to leading the Cavaliers in scoring last season, Gardner was their top rebounder (6.4 per game) and shot 50.1 percent from the floor.

Franklin shot only 29.6 percent from 3-point range for the season, but he found his touch in the NIT, making 12 of 22 attempts from beyond the arc. Bennett said both players look more comfortable and confident in his system this year.

“Those guys are more established and they’re older,” Bennett said.

Franklin, who spent his high school years in Indianapolis, is now based again in Houston, where as a young boy he lived with his mother and his two brothers. His aunt Coquese Washington also was in Houston then, playing for the WNBA’s Comets.

Washington, the new head women’s basketball at Rutgers, has connections with former NBA guard John Lucas, and Franklin trained with him in Houston for about two weeks this summer. The sessions also included other college players.

“It just a good experience,” Franklin said. “[Lucas is] very demanding and very challenging, so it was good work.”

His offseason goals included improving his mental approach to the game, Franklin said, “being able to play with that confidence and play with that freedom, not worried about missing shots and things like that. So I took that into account this offseason and even during practice now, playing without conscience and taking the open shot when it’s open and being ready to knock ‘em down.”

TOUGH TIMES: For years, assistant coach Brad Soderberg has been the most passionate Green Bay Packers fan at JPJ, but he has competition for that title now. Vander Plas, whose father played with Bennett at Wisconsin-Green Bay, grew up in Ripon, Wis., and follows the Packers religiously.

A perennial playoff team, Green Bay is 3-5 this season.

“It hurts. I can’t lie,” Vander Plas said. “The Packers are a really big source of happiness for me, and when they’re not performing like they usually are, it’s tough.”

Vander Plas spent five years at Ohio, where he earned two master’s degrees and in 2021 helped end the Cavaliers’ season. In the NCAA tournament’s first round that year, he totaled 17 points, five rebounds and four assists to help Ohio upset UVA 62-58.

His takeaways from the recent scrimmages against Maryland and UConn?

“I think that we’re going to be a really, really good team,” Vander Plas said. “We’ve got a lot of depth, a lot of guys hitting shots, a lot of guys stepping up and playing really good team defense. There’s a lot of things that we obviously still need to work on and will continue to work on as the season starts up with games, but there are a lot of things to look forward to.”

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