Forecasts of a “Wild West” offseason for Division 1 men’s basketball on the transfer front are proving accurate. The University of Virginia men’s basketball program has been impacted, with sophomore guard Casey Morsell, sophomore forward Justin McKoy, and talented true freshman wing Jabri Abdur-Rahim exiting the program.
Recalling his message to the team following the conclusion of the 2020-21 season, Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said the following on his March 24 ‘Coach’s Corner’ radio show: “I wanted to make sure they knew, I said, ‘Every one of you is welcome back here. I want you part of this program.’”
“This is a wonderful place, and you’re welcome back,” Bennett said. “I wanted them to understand that.”
Bennett says he encouraged his players to go home, be with their family, rest, pause, and take some time. He acknowledged that “everybody has decisions to make” with respect to their futures, but he wanted the team to take a break before the end-of-the-year meetings.
“I wish guys would always come back and be patient and wait and work, but it doesn’t always work like that,” Bennett said, again acknowledging the possibility of transfers.
In addition to the transfers, redshirt senior Sam Hauser announced his intentions to focus on a professional basketball career. The 2021 All ACC First-Team performer had the option of returning to UVA for another year because the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to all those who played during the 2020-21 season. Fellow seniors Jay Huff and Tomas Woldetensae have the same option. On Thursday (April 1), though, Huff announced his intentions to turn pro.
Coach Bennett indicated on his radio show that he expected all three seniors to move on.
“I think the plan is obviously to move forward with their careers,” Bennett said, noting how Hauser and Huff want to play in the NBA while Italy-native Woldetensae could have opportunities overseas.
“I wouldn’t expect anybody to come back, but as I said they’re always welcome,” Bennett said.
Could there be more defections? It seems likely that Trey Murphy III will declare for the NBA Draft. Whether or not he will stay in the draft is the question. My prediction is that he will declare, go through the pre-draft process, and decide from there. The feedback he receives in terms of draft status presumably will determine if he is back in Charlottesville next season.
Murphy III’s decision could keep Virginia fans (and coaches) on edge, but outside of his situation I think there is a good chance the Cavalier program will return the rest of the scholarship players.
VIRGINIA BASKETBALL: NEEDS & EARLY TRANSFER TARGETS
UVA currently projects to have eight scholarship players for the upcoming season. This includes class of 2021 signee Taine Murray, a 4-star guard out of New Zealand.
Point Guards: Kihei Clark (Sr), Reece Beekman (Soph)
Wings: Trey Murphy III (Sr), Kody Stattmann (Jr), Carson McCorkle (Soph), Taine Murray (Fr)
Posts: Francisco Caffaro (R-Jr), Kadin Shedrick (R-Soph)
With five scholarships available, Virginia certainly has room to add to next season’s roster. I don’t expect Bennett to try and fill all five available spots, although that depends on who wants to come aboard. Adding some scoring punch in the backcourt is something Coach Bennett seems to want based off initial transfer pursuits, which makes sense given the departures of Morsell and Abdur-Rahim. That need grows if Murphy III does not return.
Meanwhile, frontcourt help is a must with the departure of Justin McKoy. UVA was already connected with several frontcourt prospects prior to McKoy’s transfer. His decision means the Hoos may and probably will take more than one frontcourt player.
Bennett did not talk specifics on his March 24 radio show, but he did discuss what he generally looks for in transfers and high school recruits.
“You try your best, when you bring players in, is it a fit,” said Bennett. “Is there some matching things from opportunity to play, what they bring, also obviously the dynamics of the team.”
BACKCOURT TRANSFER TARGETS
Virginia was hot on the trail of Davidson grad-transfer Kellan Grady before he signed with Kentucky. Reportedly, he picked the UK over UVA and UNC. Grady would have been a great fit, bringing size (6’5”), experience, and the ability to score inside and out.
Grady may be off the board, but there are other guards Virginia is pursuing.
Armaan Franklin, Sophomore, 6’4”, 195 pounds, Indiana Transfer
Franklin has entered the transfer portal but is open to returning to Indiana, which recently hired Mike Woodson to replace the fired Archie Miller. Woodson says it is a priority to get those IU players in the portal back to IU. The Indianapolis (IN) native presumably is one Woodson would like to have back in Bloomington.
Virginia is definitely pursuing Franklin, who made a big leap from 2019-20 (his freshman year) to 2020-21. His minutes (13.8 to 30.1) and points (3.7 to 11.4) per game improved. He made 42.4% from beyond the arc and 42.9% of his field goals. Franklin was also a solid rebounder, pulling down 4.1 boards per contest.
Franklin isn’t the only Indiana transfer attracting UVA’s attention. 6’6″, 220-pound guard/forward Jordan Geronimo reportedly is as well. Geronimo, a freshman, received interest from the Hoos coming out of high school but was not offered.
Indiana transfer Jordan Geronimo tells @Stockrisers he’s heard from Virginia, Providence, Pittsburgh, Texas A&M, Ohio State, Penn State, and Seton Hall since entering the transfer portal.
6’6 prospect with great size and major upside. Former four-star appeared in 21 games.
— Jake (@jakeweingarten) April 2, 2021
Myreon Jones, Junior, Guard, 6’3”, 180 pounds, Penn State Transfer
Jones, a native of Birmingham (AL), is transferring from Penn State, where he averaged double-digit scoring – 13.3 as a sophomore and 15.3 in 2020-21 – in each of the past two seasons. Jones made 40% of his 3s his sophomore season and 39.5% his junior campaign, and he scored in double digits in all but two contests in 2020-21.
247Sports’ Dushawn London reported Virginia’s interest in Jones.
Justin Powell, Freshman, 6’6”, 205 pounds, Auburn Transfer
Powell is a native of Prospect (KY) who averaged 11.7 points, six rebounds and almost five assists per game as a true freshman this past season. The sharpshooter – Powell was 44.2% from beyond the arc – played in 10 games at Auburn this past season before being sidelined with a concussion.
Noah Locke, Junior, 6’3”, 203 pounds, Florida Transfer
Locke told ESPN’s Jeff Borzello that Virginia is one of many schools that have reached out to him, but at this point it is unclear how interested UVA is right now (and vice versa). The Baltimore (MD) native was offered by UVA in high school and would certainly add a consistent scoring bunch. How consistent? Locke averaged 9.4 points per game as a freshman, 10.6 points per game as a sophomore, and 10.6 points per game as a junior. He shot 37.9% from 3 as a freshman, 42.9% as a sophomore, and 42.5% as a junior. Locke has a good midrange game as well.
FRONTCOURT TRANSFER TARGETS
We’ll start with the player who may be Virginia’s best bet at this point in the transfer portal. As mentioned above, given the depth situation it would not surprise to see the Hoos take two frontcourt players this spring.
Jayden Gardner, Junior, 6’7”, 235 pounds, East Carolina Transfer
UVA was quick to contact the now former East Carolina star, who has made Zoom visits with Coach Bennett, Kevin Keatts of NC State, Eric Musselman of Arkansas and Jim Larranaga of Miami, and has interest from many others. Stock Risers published this report on Gardner on March 31, in which the talented forward said the following about ACC rivals UVA and NC State:
UVA – “They have a prestigious coach who will go down in the hall of fame and that I can learn from and help me get to where I want to get to because of the success he’s had of getting guys to the pros, and opportunity to test my skills in the ACC.”
NC State – “They’ve got a great coach who is also a great man. Local hometown team, great environment and situation to be in playing in ACC in front of my family.”
Gardner, who indicated to Stock Risers that a commitment could come within three weeks, is a native of Wake Forest, North Carolina. He averaged 18.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game for the Pirates this past season, making 47.9% of his field goals along the way. Gardner is not a 3-point shooter, but he is a prolific scorer inside. As a sophomore in 2019-20 he almost averaged a double-double, pouring in 19.7 points (52.1% shooting) and pulling down 9.2 rebounds per game. Another plus is Gardner’s ability to get to the free throw line, as he averaged seven free throws per contest in 2020-21, making 73.7% of them.
Noah Gurley, Junior, 6’8”, 210 pounds, Furman Transfer
Gurley confirmed Virginia’s interest in the below tweet, adding that he will narrow his focus “soon.”
— Noah Gurley (@ng_cuatro) April 1, 2021
Gurley averaged double-digit points per game each of the past two seasons with the Paladins, turning in 14.3 points per contest as a sophomore in 2019-20 and 15.4 points per game this past season. The Fayetteville (GA) native had a red-hot finish to 2020-21, scoring 24, 21, 29, and 30 points in the final four games. He averaged 5.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game as well this past season. Gurley has shown the ability to make 3s, but he was much more efficient beyond the arc as a sophomore (24-59, 40.7%) than as a junior (38-112, 33.9%).
CJ Felder, Sophomore, 6’7”, 230 pounds, Boston College Transfer
Felder is a native of Sumter (S.C.) who would probably fit the Akil Mitchell-type mold for the Cavaliers (whereas Gardner would fit more of the Anthony Gill mold). The Hoos could use both types of players in the frontcourt.
Felder averaged 9.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and a steal per game this past season for the Eagles. He made 31.4% of 70 attempts from beyond the arc – just under half of his field goals were 3-pointers. Felder led BC in defensive rebounds and rebounds per game. He led the team with 41 blocks as well.
According to Corey Bender of Gators Territory (Rivals.com), Felder could make a decision by the end of this week. No confirmation on if Tony Bennett has had a direct meeting with the standout forward, who reportedly has had Zoom meeting with head coaches from Arkansas, Florida and Texas A&M.
As for other post targets for Virginia, former U-Mass star Tre Mitchell is one that has been mentioned as a possibility, though there has not been a lot of public information on his recruitment. The 6’9”, 240-pound post averaged 18.8 points and 7.2 rebounds as a sophomore this past season, earning Atlantic 10 First-Team honors as a result. He was also an All-Academic selection.
Virginia reportedly expressed interest in Cincinnati freshman transfer Tari Eason, a 6’8” forward out of Seattle (WA). However, he does not list UVA as a school still heavily involved in this latest report from Stock Risers.
There is former North Carolina Tar Heel Walker Kessler, who took an official visit to Virginia during his recruitment in high school. Kessler is a fluid, athletic 6’11” forward with the ability to score around the basket and beyond the arc.
This report from Rivals has Virginia as a school to watch, while this tweet from Tipton Edits indicates Gonzaga could be the team to beat. Jerry Ratcliffe of JerryRatcliffe.com reported that there is a rumor that Kessler and Justin Powell – former AAU teammates – could be looking to go to the same school.
At this point, Kessler has been quiet publicly. Just in case, below are some quotes Kessler made to The Sabre following his official visit in high school.
“The things I look for in a school are academics, playing style, or if a school hasn’t had a previous player like me a playing style where I can see the coach is willing to be flexible,” Kessler said. “In Virginia I saw that. I know Virginia hasn’t had a stretch big, but I saw how Coach Bennett would use me in different ways. I want a coaching staff where everyone does something. I’m looking at the other players, like point guards, seeing what kind of players they’ve had before.”
“I went there thinking that I had never seen a stretch big at Virginia,” Kessler said. “I didn’t know if they wanted me to be another Jack Salt and mainly just set screens. Jack Salt is a beast, don’t get me wrong, but I’m just not the same type of player. Coach Bennett dissected all of my film, even film from this past week I didn’t know I had out there. He prioritized all I was looking for in playing style.”
“Why they win games so much is because they have a defensive culture,” Kessler said. “I loved it. I went and saw the Florida State game and it definitely was unbelievable. They had something like three shot-clock violations. It was great.”
HIGH SCHOOL RECRUITS
Coach Bennett did not discount the possibility of adding high school recruits to the class, noting that some players decommit because of coaching changes. An uncommitted prospect that has been on UVA’s radar for years is guard Trevor Keels. The 6’5″ senior out of Paul VI (Fairfax, VA) is rated a 5-star prospect and is set to announce his college choice on Friday, April 2, at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN2. His announcement will come during the Geico High School Nationals event.
Duke, Kentucky, Villanova and Virginia are the four finalists. Duke is the consensus favorite according to experts on Rivals and 247Sports.