Four Takeaways from the Virginia Basketball Exhibition Tour in Italy

Matt Newton

Rome: Virginia’s four-game exhibition tour to Italy is in the books and the Hoos are headed back home to Charlottesville on Saturday. With those four games concluded, it’s time to try to digest what we learned about this year’s Cavaliers this week.

While information about the games was extremely limited, especially with regards to video footage or box score statistics, there was certainly enough for us to make an honest attempt at developing some takeaways from the trip – with the obvious caveat that any observations taken from a series of exhibition games overseas should be taken with a grain of salt as far as what they mean for what the team will look like come November.

Nonetheless, here are four takeaways:

  1. Kadin Shedrick is primed for a breakout season – If an MVP award was to be handed out for the tour, Kadin Shedrick would have the best argument for it. The redshirt junior center scored in double figures in each of the three games he played, including a 19-point, 12-rebound double-double against KK Mega Basket on Thursday. Shedrick averaged 14.7 points and 8.7 rebounds and those stats do not scratch the surface of conveying Shedrick’s value on the defensive end of the floor.

Shedrick mentioned in one of the postgame interviews that he has been working on his jump shot, an exciting prospect for a player whose offensive contributions have been limited to post moves and catching lobs so far in his career. The work Shedrick has done on his jumper was evident on the trip. He displayed a much smoother jump shot in his mid-range game and he even hit a three-pointer in one of the games. Shedrick’s importance on the defensive end of the floor is already well-stated. If he can stay out of foul trouble – which is admittedly still a work in progress – he could develop into Virginia’s next great rim protector. But, Shedrick’s offensive upside is potentially even more exciting if he can stretch the floor even a little bit with his jumper.

  1. The first years are ready to contribute – Virginia’s quartet of four-star prospects in this incoming first year class seem every bit as talented as advertised. Tony Bennett has not minced words when talking about how difficult it is for freshmen to earn playing time at UVA and no exception will be made for players based on their recruiting ratings. This batch of first years know what they have to do in order to get playing time this season and they will be asked to meet that challenge head-on from here until the beginning of the season in November.

With that said, it’s hard not to get excited about what the freshmen showed in their first live game appearances with Virginia in Italy. Ryan Dunn and Leon Bond III gave the Cavaliers the athleticism they were sorely missing last season. UVA was exposed more than a few times against some of the better teams in the ACC that are loaded with extremely athletic players. Dunn and Bond were solid on the glass and even got out in transition for some easy buckets and dunks.

Isaac McKneely is definitely the frontrunner to earn the most playing time from among this first year class. He was in UVA’s starting five in two of the four games in Italy and did well with the opportunities he was given. McKneely knocked down a few three-pointers and dropped 15 points in UVA’s double-overtime win over KK Mega Basket in the finale of the tour. Isaac Traudt was also impressive, displaying some nice size and strength on the inside – especially on the offensive boards – and stepping out and knocking down jumpers as well. Traudt was Virginia’s leading scorer in the win over Orange1 Basket in Florence, recording a well-rounded statline of 19 points, six rebounds, three assists, and two steals.

Perhaps most telling was Tony Bennett’s trust in the first years to close out the final game against KK Mega Basket. In the waning moments of the second overtime period, the Cavaliers went with a closing lineup that featured Kihei Clark at point guard surrounded by the four freshmen. Clark was brilliant down the stretch, scoring 10 points in the final five minutes, but it was that lineup that included the four first years that won the game for Virginia.

Tony Bennett said this of the first years following Friday’s win over KK Mega Basket: “Flashes, stretches – really good. Their length was real defensively. And their athleticism with Leon [Bond] and Ryan [Dunn]. I thought McKneely showed some really good stuff. He banged some shots and we need that. You know when we can stretch the floor a little bit, that changes everything. So he showed his strengths, his ability… and then Isaac Traudt had some real good moments.”

Only time will tell how much the freshmen (and which freshmen) will be given opportunities to show their value when the season begins in November, but their performances in Italy this week should serve as an excellent starting point.

  1. Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman can still be a viable backcourt – Kihei Clark’s announcement that he was returning for a fifth season was the most polarizing news item of the Virginia basketball offseason, dividing the UVA fanbase into those who supported his return and those who felt it was time for him to move on. Lots of opinions were thrown around, but one of the more legitimate views was a concern that UVA returning its entire starting five might not be a good thing, considering that team went 21-14, missed the NCAA Tournament, and got bounced in the quarterfinals of the NIT. Additionally, the return of so many experienced players could prevent UVA’s talented first year class from getting opportunities to play and prove themselves.

The uncertainty some fans might have of Virginia continuing to use the strategy of running two point guards (Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman) who are not reliable three-point shooters at the two backcourt positions is justified. However, in Virginia’s most intense game of the summer – a thrilling double-overtime affair against a very good KK Mega Basket team – it was Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman who carried UVA to the win. Clark and Beekman accounted for 44 of Virginia’s 94 points and also combined for seven assists, four steals, and 10 rebounds between them. Clark scored 10 points in the final five minutes to put the game on ice. Say what you want about efficiency and spacing, but Clark and Beekman are winners.

On the other hand, this week also gave the UVA coaching staff plenty of opportunities to shuffle the roster and see what happens when different players share the floor. Simply put: the possibilities are fascinating… which leads us to takeaway #4.

  1. Virginia can and should run a deeper rotation this season – In Virginia’s first game of the tour against Stella Azzurra, Tony Bennett got a good look at a potential starting five of Reece Beekman, Isaac McKneely, Armaan Franklin, Jayden Gardner, and Kadin Shedrick – with the freshman sharpshooter McKneely taking Clark’s spot in Virginia’s usual starting five from last season. There is more balance in that lineup from a positional standpoint, particularly as Beekman is able to run the show on offense as the sole point guard. It’s an attractive idea and one UVA fans have been fantasizing about all offseason long. But even if Virginia opts to go with the same starting five as 2021-2022, McKneely and the other first years as well as Ohio transfer Ben Vander Plas have shown that they can provide something this team needed badly last season: depth.

Last season, UVA essentially ran a rotation of seven players, (sometimes eight) in each game with Clark, Beekman, Armaan Franklin, Jayden Gardner, and Shedrick starting and Francisco Caffaro and Kody Stattmann coming off the bench. This season, there could be as many as 12 players who are capable of making valuable and significant contributions.

In addition to the four freshmen, who each bring something different (and advantageous) to the UVA roster, there’s Ben Vander Plas, who brings versatility and experience having played in 121 games in his career at Ohio. When Virginia played an eighth guy last season, it was a freshman Taine Murray who was getting opportunities on the floor. With another summer of practicing the Pack Line defense under his belt, Murray is another option for Tony Bennett as a wing who provides length on defense and some additional shooting on the offensive end.

Obviously, Virginia can’t run a 12-man rotation, but even a substitution system in which 9 or 10 players get in the game would be a very refreshing development after last season. Bennett and the Virginia coaching staff have a couple of months still to sift through the various lineup combinations, but one thing is certain: this year’s roster is capable of supporting a deeper bench and that will be a tremendous asset for the Cavaliers in the 2022-2023 basketball season.