Takeaways from Virginia's Recruiting Year, and Things We'll Learn By Next Offseason
With a new season set to tipoff next Monday, anther offseason has almost came and went. It was a challenging year for Virginia on the recruiting front. They had a few curveballs thrown their way. But they battled through, managing to snag a quality transfer along with a pair of very promising 2023 recruits and are still in the running for another.
There's definitely takeaways to learn from it all, in what's been a time of major change in college basketball. And I look at a few things that will impact recruiting by next offseason.
Once Bennett Zeroes In, Virginia is Hard to Beat
It’s been underappreciated how impressive the recruiting wins were for both of Virginia’s 2023 commits. Blake Buchanan chose the Wahoos over Gonzaga, and Elijah Gertrude could have gone to Kansas. Those are programs that routinely bring in some of the top prospects in the country. Until recent years, winning battles like that was a rare occurrence.
The program’s success is mostly to credit, both winning on the court and the individual success of players after college. But I also think the coaching staff has honed their craft. They’ve learned from past experience what they need to do to put themselves in position to have a chance in those situations.
Indecisiveness is UVA’s biggest culprit. We saw that at times this year, more looking than recruiting. And there will always be occasional dead ends, recruits that aren’t responsive to their message. But once they’re able to really sink their teeth in, when recruits examine track records, and particularly when Bennett builds a personal relationship with them, UVA does pretty well.
Their strategic shifts in recent years, like focusing on fewer recruits early in the process, are designed for that purpose. Of course, the easiest way is to get in before the crowd arrives as they did with Buchanan and Gertrude.
Figuring Out The NIL Landscape
This year was the first fully impacted by the rule change which allowed players to financially benefit from their Name Image and Likeness (NIL). It’s clear that deals are being used as inducements to lure recruits. Despite that still being against NCAA rules, it’s hard to prove and there’s been no enforcement. The landscape will continue to evolve and maybe some of the shenanigans dry up, but it’s kind of the wild west out there right now.
The large deals that really change recruitments are reserved for players that are likely to make an immediate difference. Not many high school recruits meet that standard. So the targets are mostly very high-end recruits. Let’s say top 30 or so, with an exception here and there. NIL probably played a part in decisions of two or three 2023 recruits that UVA tried for, but none that they really ever expected to get.
NIL has become a major factor in transfer recruiting. And not just for the elite. The reason is simple: they contribute immediately. If Jayden Gardner had transferred a year later, he probably would have needed to turn down six-figure offers to choose UVA. This year’s transfer Ben Vander Plas admitted to The Athletic that most schools started the conversation with NIL .Thankfully he wasn’t interested. It’s a bidding war for many popular transfers now.
UVA is competitive in the legitimate NIL market. That should continue to grow, helped by Cavalier Futures. In recruiting, the key is to filter out the players that are determined to get those up-front deals that they can’t offer.
Blocked by Blue Bloods
There are really only two blue bloods when it comes to recruiting. Duke and Kentucky. They’re in an entirely different privileged class than everyone else. They pretty well get who they want. So, it’s not unusual that Virginia hasn’t been able to beat them out for a recruit. Few programs can say they have. But the Wahoos have been especially hard hit by it of late.
Three times in the 2023 recruiting cycle UVA clearly finished in the dreaded silver medal position behind one of the two blue bloods. Caleb Foster (Duke) and Reed Sheppard (Kentucky) committed so early that you probably forgot they were Virginia’s original top guard targets in the class. And then there was TJ Power. That’s the one that stung. He was almost surely headed to UVA before the July weekend when Duke swooped in.
I don’t know that there’s much UVA should do to adjust, other than maybe hedging more when there are signs of them coming. They’re not going to stop recruiting players just because Duke offers, and eventually they will win one. Bennett always recruits players that he believes can be great. Some of them are bound to shoot up the charts a little too high. It’s part of the game. UVA does the same thing. Somebody else probably thought they were getting Ryan Dunn until Bennett showed up last July.
More Competition for Late Discoveries
Virginia has had a ton of success under Bennett with recruits who emerged in their final summer of AAU. Guys who weren’t heavily recruited until late in the process. The list includes all-time greats like Malcolm Brogdon, DeAndre Hunter, and London Perrantes. Finding those late risers is baked into Bennett’s formula. His backup plan is never a specific recruit. It’s the summer’s live periods.
Getting those players is becoming harder though, thanks to the transfer portal. It used to be if you really wanted a late riser, you had to prioritize him over a recruit you’ve been after much longer. That’s been the secret to Bennett’s success, his willingness to do that. Now because team’s are managing their rosters differently due to transfers, everybody has room to take their shot at a suddenly popular summer blow-up.
It’s still going to be a big part of what Virginia does. They were able to snag Ryan Dunn last year. I would put Elijah Gertrude in the summer riser category this year. But there’s more competition for those types of recruits. Look at Davin Cosby (Alabama) instantly becoming a priority for a long line of high-majors, and how Cameron Carr has heavyweights fighting for him this Fall. Brogdon would have been in a lot more demand today, that’s for sure.
Things We'll Learn Before Next Offseason
There’s two important verdicts coming soon. 2023 guard Cameron Carr is expected to make his college choice. And we’ll find out which, if any, of Virginia’s freshmen is redshirting.
There’s no decision date set for Cameron Carr yet. But with the early signing period coming up, November 9th through the 16th, he’ll get it done in time for that. He’s used all five of his official visits to Virginia, Northwestern, Kansas State, Tennessee, and most recently Louisville. All of those teams seem to believe they have a shot. We’ll find out soon enough.
There’s been indication about whether a freshman will redshirt. But there usually isn’t until gameday. Forward Leon Bond and wing Ryan Dunn have mentioned the possibility. I expect one of them will, but probably not both. The decision does factor into which types of players they’ll prioritize in the 2024 class.
Someone asked in our latest mailbag which 2024 recruits were Virginia’s top targets. There’s no clear answer to that right now, but there probably will be by the end of the season. With the recent offers to point guards, they’ve laid out a very clear early plan. Two or three targets for each spot they’re trying to fill. There just hasn’t been enough activity yet to indicate specific players as a higher priority.
Most of the players they’ve offered for 2024 have already visited. There are three important ones that haven’t. Wing Kon Knueppel has already scheduled his official visit for the weekend of the Duke game in February. And the two freshly offered point guards, Daniel Freitag and Travis Perry haven’t yet visited. So it’ll be interesting to see if those visits happen. And maybe more so, where Bennett goes in his very limited time recruiting over these next five months.
And while it’s always an unlikely bet for any specific junior to commit this early, chances are there will be players to come off the board before the offseason. Top forward targets Jarin Stevenson and Caleb Williams have both been very active taking visits. It wouldn’t be a shock if one of them came to an early decision. And with the rare opportunity UVA has at point guard, Freitag or Perry might be tempted to lock that spot down after their visits.
Planning For The Portal
Virginia will be active in recruiting the transfer portal next Spring. They’ll want at least one, maybe more. Right now, there’s only nine scholarship players on the 2023-24 roster. So, space is certainly there. Just how active they’ll be could depend on how some of their young players perform this season.
They need help up front. Projected returners are Kadin Shedrick, current freshmen Isaac Traudt and Leon Bond, along with 2023 commit Blake Buchanan. Not only thin, but also a young group. Plus Buchanan has talked about potentially redshirting. The only question is what type of frontcourt addition they’ll look for. And the answer probably hinges on how comfortable they are with Isaac Traudt at center.
Reece Beekman is the only projected returner at point guard next season. The right transfer will be of interest regardless. But whether it’s considered a necessity or a luxury will depend on how they feel about Isaac McKneely and/or Elijah Gertrude holding down that spot to spell Beekman.
And maybe the key player in determining Virginia’s portal plan is sophomore guard Taine Murray. When projecting next year’s starting lineup, there’s a question mark on the wing. The logical candidate is Murray. He needs to establish himself this season. Ryan Dunn could factor into the equation, or maybe there’s a chance of Armaan Franklin using his extra season. But if there isn’t an obvious in-house solution, it could become a really attractive opening for a high-end transfer.
I’m excited for the new season and to start getting some of those answers. Word is the Hoos have looked good winning preseason scrimmages over Maryland and UConn. They say the offense is ahead of the defense. After last year, we’ll take that. Let’s get it going. Go Hoos!
(Featured Image: Matt Riley/UVA Athletics)