By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — For the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, summer practice is under way at John Paul Jones Arena, and to say the Cavaliers have undergone significant changes since the end of last season would be a massive understatement.

The coaching staff, led by Tony Bennett, remains the same, but the roster includes seven players who were not at UVA last season: transfers Dai Dai Ames (Kansas State), TJ Power (Duke), Elijah Saunders (San Diego State), Jalen Warley (Florida State) and Carter Lang (Vanderbilt), who’s a preferred walk-on, plus freshmen Jacob Cofie and Ishan Sharma.

The newcomers join the returning players from a team that finished 23-11 last season: Blake Buchanan, Andrew Rohde, Isaac McKneely, Taine Murray, Elijah Gertrude, Anthony Robinson, Christian Bliss, and walk-ons Bryce Walker and Desmond Roberts. Robinson and Bliss redshirted last season, though, so they’ll be making their UVA debuts in 2024-25 too.

“There’s a lot of new faces with some of the existing ones,” Bennett said, “and there’s really going to be healthy competition, as there is every year. As college basketball has changed, you’re bringing in some more transfers, and we believe in the balanced approach. Hence, that’s why we have two high school kids and two young men who redshirted. So in essence, you have four high school kids and then you have four [scholarship] transfers.”

Of the Wahoos’ scholarship players, Murray and Warley are the only seniors. In this era of player movement, there are no guarantees that every player with eligibility remaining will choose to return to UVA after this season. But Bennett said he’s looking at this as “a two-year plan” and hopes to bring back a veteran group in 2025-26.

In recent years, the Hoos have added several transfers who had only one season of eligibility remaining, including Jake Groves and Jordan Minor in 2023-24. Of the group that arrived Grounds this month, Saunders has two years of eligibility left, and Ames, Power and Lang have three each.

The coaching staff’s goal, Bennett said, was “to build this so that there can be at least two years of continuity with the core, and in this case, you can say two or three years, assuming that they want to stay.”

Bennett is heading into his 16th season with the Cavaliers. For much of his tenure, he focused on building continuity with recruits who would enter UVA as freshmen and then develop over several years. With the advent of the transfer portal, he’s altered his approach out of necessity.

“Now it’s like, ‘Let’s try to build, if we can, at least a two-year model for the main core, maybe three, and try to keep our core together that way,’ ” Bennett said. “This will be tested at the end of next season if certain guys either aren’t playing or they’re whatever, because of how the rules are. Maybe that’s the case. Then you’ll know maybe it’s best just to do it with all seniors and build your program once a year.”

Jalen Warley (1)

Virginia will not have a full complement of players this season. Gertrude, a 6-foot-4 sophomore who would have been an important piece at guard, suffered a serious knee injury in a scooter accident April 30. After having reconstructive surgery, Gertrude has been rehabbing daily with head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba, but he’ll miss the entire season.

After Gertrude’s mishap, the Cavaliers intensified their pursuit of the 6-foot-1 Ames. He’s a talented player with multiple years of eligibility and replaces some of the athleticism lost when Gertrude got injured.

“So the addition of Dai Dai was significant,” Bennett said. “He’s tough. He’s a Chicago kid.”

Ames started 16 games for K-State last season. The 6-foot-8, 225-pound Saunders started 21 games for San Diego State and helped the Aztecs advance to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen, where they lost to eventual champion Connecticut.

Warley, a 6-foot-7 guard, started 32 of 33 games and led FSU in assists last season. The 6-foot-9 Power didn’t play big minutes last season at Duke, whose lineup was stacked with future NBA draft picks, but he was a sought-after recruit coming out of high school and, along with Saunders, figures to give UVA excellent offensive options at power forward.

The NBA draft starts Wednesday night, and UVA fans will be following forward Ryan Dunn and point guard Reece Beekman during the proceedings.

The 6-foot-8 Dunn is expected to be selected in the late first or early second round. If Beekman isn’t picked in the second round, he’ll sign with a team as an undrafted free agent, the route Sam Hauser followed with the Boston Celtics.

Dunn started every game last season and led the Hoos in rebounding and blocked shots. He was second on the team in steals, and his field-goal percentage (54.8) was the highest on the team. But most of Dunn’s points—he averaged 8.1 per game—came on layups and dunks. He shot 20 percent from 3-point range and 53.2 percent on free throws.

“I think now with TJ and Elijah, you’ve got guys who are going to let it fly,” Bennett said.

Beekman, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, led Virginia in scoring, assists and steals last season. Not since 2019-20 have the Cavaliers had a Beekman-less backcourt, and the point guard duties are likely to be split among Bliss, Warley and Ames this season.

“I think it’s good to have multiple guys that can play that spot,” Bennett said.

The 6-foot-4 Bliss enrolled at UVA last summer after graduating early from high school. From the start, the plan was for him to redshirt in 2023-24 and learn from such mentors as Beekman, and Bliss practiced with the team until February, when he underwent surgery to repair a nagging ankle injury.

Healthy again, Bliss is “a physical, skilled, heady combo [guard],” Bennett said. “We’ve done well when we’ve had complete guards. Christian can play with the ball, he can play without it with his size.”

Isaac McKneely

Rohde, a 6-foot-6 junior, is another capable playmaker. He was second on the team in assists last season, with 90. A transfer from St. Thomas (Minn.), Rohde struggled as a shooter in his first season at Virginia, averaging only 4.3 points per game. He made 29.3 percent of his field-goal attempts overall and was 28 for 109 (25.7 percent) from 3-point range.

Bennett said he expects Rohde, who started 27 games in 2023-24, to be more comfortable and confident this season. St. Thomas competes in the Summit League, a strong mid-major conference, “but when you go up to a Power Five league, the size, the athleticism, the pace changes,” Bennett said.

“He had some flashes where he obviously did some good things and then obviously you saw some times that were part of his adjustment process. He’s continuing to work on his shot and getting as strong and athletic as he can, and he has the natural passing and instincts and feel. I thought he actually surprised us, being sound defensively. With his smarts and his positioning and his ability to guard, he picked up that quicker than I thought he would. He had some of the struggles that every player has, but I think those will prove to motivate him and show him even more clearly, ‘OK, this is what I have to attack.’ ”

The 6-foot-5 Murray started the Cavaliers’ final two games in 2023-24 and is looking to build on his late-season surge.

“No one’s going to outwork Taine, and Taine really has improved,”  Bennett said. “He’s an example of a guy who’s just gotten better and better.”

Of the Cavaliers’ top five scorers in 2023-24, only McKneely (12.3 ppg), a 6-foot-4 junior, is back. An elite shooter who made 44.3 percent of his 3-point attempts last season, McKneely encountered defenses intent on taking away his open looks on the perimeter.

“People decided to really lock on to him,” Bennett said, “and he had to learn how to try to create a little more off the dribble, whether that’s getting to his spot for a pull-up or a mid-range or finishing [around the basket]. I think he wants to keep attacking his ball-handling and finishing, and then just keep becoming an aggressive scorer, looking for his shot and looking to get as strong and as athletic as he can.”

McKneely has also taken on a larger leadership role, “because he is the most experienced player [on the team],” Bennett said, “and now he’s an upperclassman, even though he had to act like one last year. Those are the areas I think he’ll attack with a reckless abandon.”

The Hoos’ centers last season were Buchanan and Minor. It was something of a roller-coaster ride for the 6-foot-11 Buchanan, who started six games, but Bennett believes he’ll be better for the experience. The 6-foot-10, 238-pound Robinson joined the program as an intriguing prospect and made strides in practice as the big man on the Green Machine, the Cavaliers’ scout team.

For Robinson, redshirting “made sense with Jordan Minor coming in,” Bennett said. “Big guys usually take a little longer to develop, and Anthony is on the right track. He’s got the body, he’s got the physicality, he’s got the athleticism. As he continues to get more comfortable out there, he’s just going to get better and better.”

Lang, who’s listed at 6-foot-9, 235 pounds, started seven games as a Vanderbilt freshman last season. He starred at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, and Bennett is familiar with Lang’s game.

“He has a strong work ethic and will provide competition and depth with his size in the frontcourt,” Bennett said.

Cofie (6-foot-10, 230 pounds) and Sharma (6-foot-5, 185 pounds) have excellent size, too, and they arrived on Grounds with impressive credentials this month.

Cofie, who’s from Seattle, was named Washington’s player of the year after leading Eastside Catholic to its first state championship. He averaged 21.9 points, 12.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.9 steals and 2.3 blocks per game.

“He’s a talent,” Bennett said.

Sharma is from Ontario, where he attended Fort Erie International Academy and distinguished himself as a 3-point shooter. He was named Canada’s high school player of the year in 2023-24.

“As far as what I’m expecting of them, it’s my same answer,” Bennett said of Cofie and Sharma. “If you’re ready and you can contribute, there’s opportunity for that. And if you need to just keep grinding away, then so be it.”

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