There are similarities between Bennett’s task this season and that of Ted Lasso, played by Jason Sudeikis, who uses creative methods of motivation to varying degrees of success in both American football, which he knows well, and the European version, which is foreign to him.
At the top of that list is attempting to get a host of new players to understand and embrace the culture Bennett has installed at Virginia, where he is entering the 13th year of a tenure that includes a national championship in 2019 as well as five ACC regular season and two tournament titles.
Only one full-time starter, senior Kihei Clark, is back for the Cavaliers. The other regular member of the rotation returning is sophomore Reece Beekman, who started 20 of 25 games playing with Clark in the backcourt.
Gone are the top three scorers, Sam Hauser, Jay Huff and Trey Murphy III, who was selected 17th in July’s NBA draft. Hauser and Murphy provided most of Virginia’s firepower from three-point range last season, and Huff, also capable from behind the arc, was the primary rim protector.
It’s unclear who is in line to fill those important roles, but Kadin Shedrick will have an opportunity to be in the mix, according to Bennett. The 6-foot-11 redshirt sophomore played sparingly last season and missed eight games with an illness not related to the coronavirus.
“In terms of replacing Jay and Sam, I think that I bring different things to the table,” said Shedrick, who played in 11 of the Cavaliers’ 25 games last season. “I think that I can be more active in ball screens and things such as that. I think that Jay and Sam brought incredible scoring, and I hope that I can at least halfway fill the shoes.”
Shedrick spent more time on Zoom than the basketball court for prolonged stretches last season, most notably during a 17-day hiatus between games because of positive tests and contact tracing that forced the Cavaliers to pause in-person basketball operations.
Players spoke to one another via Zoom virtually every night of the quarantine. Their only in-person basketball workouts at John Paul Jones Arena during that time featured one player at a time on one end of the court.
The circumstances were far from ideal for promoting team camaraderie and significantly limited institution of the defensive principles behind which Bennett transformed Virginia into an annual contender for the ACC crown over 11 consecutive winning seasons.
It’s the longest such run under one coach in program history.
The Cavaliers finished 18-7 last season with the best winning percentage in the ACC (13-4) and advanced to the semifinals of the conference tournament. They had to withdraw before playing in that round following a positive test and became the last team to arrive for the NCAA tournament, which was staged entirely in and around Indianapolis.
“I think when I took the job, I remember looking at the media guide when I was at Washington State and deciding, is Virginia the place I want to go?” Bennett said. “It struck me that they had some great players, great coaches and success in spurts, but there wasn’t a lot of consistency. There were very few over-.500 or .500 years in the ACC, so that drew me to it. Can you build a consistent winner?”
To continue at that level, Virginia is counting on contributions from a pair of transfers.
Jayden Gardner, a 6-6 senior forward, played his first three seasons at East Carolina. Last season, Gardner was named to the American Athletic Conference first team, averaging 18.3 points and 8.3 rebounds over 35.2 minutes. He finished second in the AAC in scoring.
Armaan Franklin, a 6-4 junior guard, started 20 of 22 games for Indiana last season. He shot a team-high 42.4 percent on three-pointers and finished second on the Hoosiers in steals (26), making him an appealing addition to Virginia’s pack-line defense.
“It’s just the way college athletics is now,” Bennett said. “There’s so many changes with name, image and likeness and transfers, one-time transfer exceptions, but the program, you do the right thing. You get the right kind of young men, and you pursue excellence, and you enjoy it while you’re doing it, and those who want to be a part of it will be a part of it.”
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