There have been times in the ACC when things changed in a big way. Consider for example when Frank McGuire left, followed a couple of years later by Everett Case, forced out by illness.
In the 1960’s, Vic Bubas and then Dean Smith seized control of the ACC. Bubas only stayed a decade, but Smith built an enduring program over his 36 years.
Lefty Driesell came along in 1970 and built Maryland into a basketball power. At the same time, Norm Sloan built NC State into an incredible program, peaking with a two-year run of 57-1 and the national title in 1974 (the one loss was to UCLA). ACC fans still talk about the NC State-Maryland rivalry then. The schools were strong enough to briefly eclipse UNC.
In 1980, Mike Krzyzewski took over at Duke and built a phenomenal program, and just as ESPN was coming along too.
When Smith retired in 1997, Coach K had a period of dominance like the ACC has never seen.
And in 2010, Tony Bennett arrived at Virginia and began to turn that program into a nightmare for everyone.
UVa peaked in 2019 with an incredible championship run and with the retirement of Ol’ Roy Williams a year ago and Mike Krzyzewski this summer, Bennett has a chance to seize control of the conference just as Bubas, Smith and Krzyzewski did before him.
Bennett’s 2019 title run was just about as compelling though. Remember, the previous year Virginia had been thoroughly embarrassed by UMBC, becoming the first #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed. And it wasn’t close either, with UMBC winning by 20 and carving Virginia up like a Thanksgiving turkey.
In the end, that helped. A keenly focused Virginia took out Gardner-Webb, Oklahoma and Oregon in relatively normal games in the 2019 dance. Then came Purdue and one of the great plays in tournament history: with the game on the line, freshman Kihei Clark chased the ball down in the backcourt after a missed free throw attempt and whipped it up court to Mamadi Diakiti, who hit a buzzer beater to put the game into OT.
That was followed by another thrilling win, this time over Auburn 63-62 and finally an overtime win over Texas Tech to nab the title.
Then Covid hit in 2019-20.
Virginia finished 23-7 and of course there was no post-season.
In 2020-21, the ‘Hoos wrapped up at 18-7 but a late bout with Covid ensured they would lose to Ohio in the NCAA opener.
And last year, Bennett’s team ended up in the NIT, finishing 21-14.
So things have flattened out a bit since the title run, much of it due to Covid, but this year looks like a return to normal for the Cavaliers.
First, and importantly, Clark decided to take his bonus year at Virginia. Why not? UVA now generously lists him at 5-10 but that’s a stretch. He’s closer to 5-8 and he’s not such a physical freak that he will play in the NBA at that size. Might as well stick around and add to his Virginia legend.
But Virginia also returns 6-6/242 lb. Jayden Gardner, who proved to be a major pain last year after transferring from ECU, 6-2 junior Reece Beekman, a masterful defender, Aarman Franklin, the 6-4 senior transfer from Indiana who found his shooting touch quite late and 6-11 Kadin Shedrick, who certainly had his moments last season. He could be the classic Bennett late bloomer who mostly sits for a year or two and then emerges as a potent force. His biggest issue was weight but we’d expect him to be much stronger this time around.
Francisco Caffaro is 7-1 and 252 so he can bang down low. Taine Murray, a 6-5 Kiwi, is back as well and showed signs last year that he may become a factor.
Losses are minimal with the biggest being Igor Milicic, who left after one season.
Virginia only brought in one transfer, 6-8 Ben Vander Plas from Ohio, who put up 17 in Ohio’s NCAA win over UVa.
He had a solid career with the Bobcats and should help Virginia. His shooting may open up the inside for other guys. Trivia: his full name is actually Bennett and his father was a college teammate of Tony’s father, Dick Bennett. So you see where the name came from.
Virginia brings in a highly impressive freshman class.
Isaac McKneely (6-4/195) comes from Poca, West Virginia. Poca High’s nickname is the Dots which, really is pretty cool.
He reportedly played in a system similar to Bennett’s, so his adjustment may be quick. He’s been compared to former UVA guard Joe Harris and is reportedly a solid shooter and a good all around player. He picked UVA over UNC and West Virginia, among others.
Virginia also brings in another Isaac, Isaac Traudt (6-10/230). He’s from Grand Island, Nebraska, and when he emerged, people got pretty excited. He was also on Duke’s radar. He’s a good shot who will take a defender outside and has solid all-around skills. He’s not a freakish athlete but he’s pretty good. He sounds like a great fit for Bennett Ball.
Ryan Dunn (6-8/208) could see time at point, which would be a blessing given Clark’s height. We love Clark, but he’s just small and you can’t fix that. You can sub in though and Dunn may see time as his backup. At 6-8 though he presents a lot of options for Bennett.
Leon Bond (6-5/200) is a very athletic guard out of Wisconsin. He’ll need to work on his shot but with Bennett’s defense-first system, he should get an opportunity to play early. If you pair him and Beekman, that could be a real nightmare for opposing backcourts. If he improves as a shooter, look out.
Virginia’s backcourt should be loaded: Clark, Franklin, Dunn, Bond and McKneely will be as good as anyone’s. And don’t forget Murray, who could become a factor.
There are questions up front. Is Shedrick ready? How will Vander Plas fit in? How much can Traudt take on as a freshman? Can they defend to Bennett’s standards?
There aren’t many questions about Gardner. He proved his worth last year.
Like Clark for the last few years though, Gardner has been asked to do far too much. Virginia didn’t have a choice. Bennett rode his horses hard, and both did well under the circumstances, but Clark is not a first option and Gardner, despite doing reasonably well, shouldn’t be a primary post option.
Here’s the key thing to remember about Virginia this year: no one should be asked to do more than they are capable of. No one should have to play out of position. That should be over.
And with the influx of talent, Bennett’s team should be back up to what we expect from Virginia: a meat grinder on defense and brutally patient on offense.
You can’t say for sure that this is a Final Four team, but 30 wins is a reasonable goal.
We’ll be shocked if Virginia doesn’t finish in the top three in the ACC. A deep March run seems likely as well.