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Virginia basketball hopes clear identity will help with fast start to the season

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Virginia forward Jayden Gardner, center, drives to the basket against St. Bonaventure during the NIT quarterfinals on Tuesday at John Paul Jones Arena.

CHARLOTTESVILLE – A year ago, Virginia basketball got off to a disastrous start, losing early games to Navy and James Madison, part of a 6-4 showing in its non-conference schedule. That was a big part of the reason it missed an NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013.

This month, coach Tony Bennett pointed out to his players why the 9-0 Milwaukee Bucks have gotten off to such a fast start in the NBA this season – a clarity on who they are and what roles their players must play.

“Let’s try to be as clear as we can on our identity and what we need to do, learn about it, and then just go out and play,” said Bennet. “And I always think players play best when they’re freed up to play.”

So, who are the 2022-23 Cavaliers, who open their season Monday night at John Paul Jones Arena against North Carolina Central?

Bennett believes he has a team with “quality depth” and ample experience, one that should shoot the ball better than last year’s squad while playing his trademark stout defense.

A year ago, UVa ranked 12th in the ACC, connecting on just 32.3% of its 3-point shots. And though it led the conference in scoring defense, allowing just 60.1 points per game, its points-per-possession statistic wasn’t as strong as recent years.

Three players – Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman and Jayden Gardner – played over 32 minutes per game, and two others – Armaan Franklin and Kadin Shedrick – averaged over 20 for the Cavaliers, who went 21-14 and lost in the quarterfinals of the NIT.

This preseason has been about blending what Bennett described as, effectively, two teams – his returning veterans, including the top six scorers from last season, and five newcomers, four four-star recruits and Ohio graduate transfer Ben Vander Plas.

Four games during a tour of Italy in August, plus two preseason scrimmages against Connecticut and Maryland, helped with that.

Bennett said he played the same starting lineup and used the same bench rotation in both scrimmages – telling the top seven players they’re all in contention to start, and the remaining five they’re all in contention to crack the top seven. His players said it’s clear the competition for roles on this year’s team is still very much ongoing.

“We’re still figuring stuff out,” said Beekman. “I feel like we’re much deeper this year. We’re still trying to figure out the rotation.”

Part of that may be how Bennett chooses to use Beekman and Clark, both experienced point guards. Will they rotate for each other or play together, one working off the ball?

That’s a similar question when it comes to power forwards Gardner, last season’s leading scorer, and Vander Plas, a more perimeter-oriented big man. In the scrimmages, Gardner started and Vander Plas subbed for him, but later in games, they played on the floor together.

Will any of the freshmen – guards Isaac McKneely, Leon Bond III and Ryan Dunn and forward Isaac Traudt – redshirt this year?

Have players including Shedrick, Franklin and Taine Murray taken a step in their development, offensively and defensively?

The challenging scrimmages were designed to help expedite UVa’s readiness to start the season, important considering the tough schedule Bennett has in store for it. The Cavaliers face No. 3 Houston, No. 5 Baylor, No. 22 Michigan and either No. 8 UCLA or No. 22 Illinois before flipping the calendar to 2023.

“After you play these scrimmages, you kind of get the picture, you kind of get the flow of who’s ready right now to play against that competition,” said Gardner. “Who’s ready when the lights are shining?”

mbarber@timesdispatch.com

Twitter: @RTD_MikeBarber

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