Cavaliers a 'work in progress' with plenty of promise
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 SPORTS) -- Construction signs are commonplace around Grounds in the summer at Virginia, but the same could be found around the men's basketball program with a roster of new faces.
"We're a work in progress," UVA men's basketball associate head coach Jason Williford said.
A common refrain from Williford this time of year, but with only 28.8 percent of the Cavaliers scoring back, it might actually ring more true this summer.
"I can be a broken record, but we're a work in progress," Williford said, "A lot of new pieces, not so much inexperience cause there are guys that have experience but just not within what we do. And quite honestly, guys that are going to have to take on new roles."
At the top of the list are rising sophomores Isaac McKneely and Ryan Dunn, the first pair of UVA freshmen to play more than ten minutes a game since 2016-17 when Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome were in their first seasons.
"McKneely and Dunn in particular are gonna have to have expanded roles and do more," Williford said, "Reece will have to do more. So, those three in particular."
Reece Beekman returns for his senior season as the de facto leader for the Cavaliers, while also moving into the role of point guard after sharing duties with Kihei Clark the last three years. While spending time making his NBA Draft decision, Beekman spent time with another member of last season's first year class in fellow Wisconsin native Leon Bond, who redshirted last season. The senior guard sees Bond, Dunn and McKneely as key players come November and their work has reflected the upcoming responsibility.
"Leon, I know I've been back home with him, I know he's been in the gym a lot," Beekman said. "Ryan and I-Mac both have to step up for us. I felt like they've taken that summer and taken that mindset very seriously. They came back looking very well."
Through a few weeks of summer workouts with the whole team at John Paul Jones Arena, what stands out most to the Cavaliers is the length and athleticism on the court.
"I think we're very athletic," Beekman said, "Long, a lot of length on the court just between the guys. I feel like everybody's locked in."
Only true freshmen Blake Buchanan (6'11") and Anthony Robinson (6'10") stand over 6'9" on the Virginia roster, so while not big like some past UVA teams, Williford sees plenty of length on the defensive end.
"We're athletic but probably not as strong as some of the teams with like Gill and Mitchell and Atkins and Anderson and Brogdon, some of those teams," Williford said, "But we're long and lanky and athletic, which is a little different than we've had in the past. I think we can be pretty good defensively. They're all learning the pack, learning what we need and require of them."
More than half the roster has never put on a UVA uniform, including Georgetown transfer guard Dante Harris who sat out half of last season. But the seven new players have been a seamless fit, especially the trio of transfers in Jordan Minor, Andrew Rohde and Jake Groves.
"Just experience, we lost a lot of that, so coming in with a young team, we always need that, those teams can go far," Beekman said, "Jake bringing an outside presence for us kind of like Ben a little bit. He uses his leadership to help us as well. And then Jordan the same way, kind of similar to JG in a way as well."
Beekman was especially familiar with St. Thomas product Rohde.
"I knew Andrew Rohde before this. Being from Wisconsin, I grew up in the same AAU organization, and I seen him in high school as well just keeping in touch with that," Beekman said, "I know he had a great year at St. Thomas, so I knew he was a good player."
UVA coaches feel the new crop of first-years are coming along as well. Top-50 guard Elijah Gertrude is still recovering from an ACL injury suffered in high school, but Williford does not "see why he wouldn't be" fully healthy by the start of the season. Meanwhile the two freshmen big men have shown flashes during workouts.
"Gertrude's still coming back from injury. And he's working slowly but surely," Williford said, "But, Anthony Robinson and Blake Buchanan have been good. Very athletic, they can defend and rebound and finish by the basket, so just been exciting what we're seen from those guys."
While still a work in progress, there is plenty to like inside JPJ.
"For us, that's fun to see who emerges," Williford said, "And we're just going to continue to work, and I like what I've seen so far."