Virginia Basketball Media Day: Team Chemistry Developing Well

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Jayden Gardner (pictured) and Armaan Franklin transferred to the University of Virginia this offseason. Both players are expected to play major roles for the Hoos in 2021-22. ~ Photo by Kris Wright/TheSabre.com

The University of Virginia men’s basketball program features 10 scholarship players in the 2021-22 season, including four new faces – transfers Armaan Franklin and Jayden Gardner, and first years Igor Milicic Jr. and Taine Murray. Of the remaining six scholarship players, senior point guard Kihei Clark has played in 93 career games (73 starts) at UVA, while the next five either lack experience playing in a significant role, lack maturity in terms of years in college, or both.

– Senior wing Kody Stattmann has played in 46 games (10 starts).

– Redshirt junior center Francisco Caffaro has played in 37 games (two starts).

– Sophomore point guard Reece Beekman played in 25 games as a true freshman last season, earning 20 starts.

– Redshirt sophomore forward Kadin Shedrick has played in 11 games.

– Sophomore guard Carson McCorkle has played in eight games.

The 2021-22 Cavaliers are very much a new team on several fronts. However, in the months leading up to next Tuesday’s (Nov. 9) season-opener versus Navy, this team has established good chemistry off the court, establishing a good foundation heading into the season.

“Good so far,” Gardner, a standout forward who transferred to UVA after three productive seasons at East Carolina, said, describing his time at UVA so far. “A lot of close relationships with our guys. We have a great staff. Really, it’s just hanging out, and being like a family. Everything we do off the court is mainly together, whether it’s eating or participating in some activities. We’re all … we’re close, so it’s been really a fun, good relationships to build with my teammates and coaches. I’m just enjoying myself so far.”

Franklin, a guard who took his talents to Charlottesville after two years at Indiana, said, “I think what surprised me was how smooth of a transition it was for me to get in tune with the team and just be comfortable around them. It’s not always easy coming to a new school in your third year and trying to gel with older players and newer players at the same time, but I think they made it a lot easier on me, just bringing me in, hanging out with me as soon as I got here. We go out to eat a lot. We just hang out a lot, do what we do.”

“Every single person here was new to me, but I found out quickly that this is a tight-knit team and I just fell in line with them. Just hopped on the train,” Franklin added.

Virginia lost its top three scorers – Sam Hauser, Jay Huff, and Trey Murphy III – and its top three 3-point shooters – Hauser, Murphy III, and Tomas Woldetensae from a team that captured the 2021 ACC Regular Season title. Guard Casey Morsell (NC State) and wing Justin McKoy (North Carolina), who each averaged double-digit minutes per game by season’s end, transferred to other ACC schools this offseason. Touted recruit Jabri Abdur-Rahim, who played sparingly as a true freshman last season, transferred to Georgia. The Hoos brought in two top transfers in Franklin, who averaged double-digit points and made over 40% from beyond the arc last season at Indiana, and Gardner, who started 79 of 81 games in three seasons with the Pirates, averaging 18 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.

This new team appears to be getting along well off the court, but how is the on-court chemistry developing? Gardner feels the smaller scholarship count – a contrast to last season, when there were not enough minutes to make everyone happy – will help.

“I think just knowing that you’re gonna be counted on and everyone’s going to have their time during the season, and we just have to be ready when that time comes,” Gardner said. “Because everybody’s opportunity might come with baring injuries – knock on wood – and certain situations, certain matchups, so just staying ready. I think everybody is staying ready right now.”

“I think [developing chemistry has] gone pretty well because almost every guy is really unselfish, so it’s just getting to know each other’s tendencies and what each other likes to do and setting each other up for good looks and just being a whole unit on defense,” Gardner said. “I think our mentality, playing together, has been pretty good so far.”

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said: “I like our chemistry and I like that everyone has an opportunity. There’s nothing like the opportunity to play that keeps you engaged and working hard. Everyone, as Jayden said, has to stay ready and know that their number could be called, whether it’s foul trouble, an injury, or just you’ve played well and you’re starting to move up.”

“Up to this point it’s been great,” Bennett said of the chemistry. “When you start giving our playing time and opportunities, the truth serum comes sometimes when adversity hits, whether it’s some guys aren’t getting exactly what they thought they would. We’ve tried very hard to recruit to the pillars in our program, guys that are excited about what Virginia stands for basketball-wise, academically, the opportunities here. Gratefulness, I think, breeds chemistry and breeds that unity. How are guys grateful? Sometimes it’s the opportunity to play, but just being around like-minded people that have a common vision to do it the hard way, the right way, and enjoy each other’s company. I think that’s always been one of the strengths of most good programs in any sport, but our program when I think of the guys going through it. Even when we’ve had guys transfer out, we’ve been fortunate to have the right kind of guys. They’re grateful and thankful for this opportunity. That’s challenged more. It’s shifting, but it doesn’t mean you can’t those who are excited about this.”

More From UVA Basketball Media Day: Notes & Quotes

Coach Bennett on how the team looks leading up to the Nov. 9 season-opener versus Navy, following two preseason scrimmages (the Hoos faced Georgetown and VCU) …

“I think there’s a newness to this team that we’ve discussed,” Bennett said. “So we’re still forging our identity. You say that every year at this time, but especially with a team that’s newer. I thought we played hard. I thought we were active in both of the scrimmages. We got some mobile guys on the interior. I think Kadin and Papi are aggressive and active, and Jayden Gardner works hard, so there’s mobility there. And then defensively, with Kihei and Reece – they’re our two most experienced players – they know our backbone has to be trying to be as good as we can defensively on the perimeter. Guys like Armaan and all of the new guys, they’re just continuing to learn their way, but everybody’s bringing value. With a team that only has 10 scholarship guys, there’s opportunity for almost all of them. It keeps guys ready and it does promote chemistry and just continuing to find different ways. I thought there was effort. What do we need to improve on, it’s just continuing to realize how important every possession is. You see some sloppy play on both ends of the floor in those scrimmages, at least we did. The rough edges need to continue to be sanded off and to become as good and efficient as we can be, whatever that ends up looking like.”

Coach Bennett on Kihei Clark’s 3-point shooting improvement …

“There’s been some practices and scrimmages where we’ve hit some shots and some where we haven’t, but you’ve got to be willing to take them and I see that in Kihei and I like how hard he’s worked at it,” Bennett said.

Coach Bennett on Kihei Clark’s leadership role in 2021-22 …

“He’s going to have to find the right mix of aggressiveness, leadership, with being a great teammate,” Bennett said. “That’s going to be important for us and this team to be as good as it can be.”

Coach Bennett on Reece Beekman becoming more assertive on offense …

“I think a player can’t ever change, you know, they are who they are. You have an identity,” Bennett said. “Reece, he’s a point guard. As is Kihei, but they’re different kinds of point guard. Same with Ty Jerome and different ones I’ve had. Reece is, he sets guys up, he creates, he touches the paint, he does things defensively. He was a first-year last year, so my hope is that with him aggressiveness comes in the right way. For me, I want him to be more assertive and attack the paint. Take more of an open shot when you’re there. You never can become someone you’re not and try to say, ‘Well, coach wants me to shoot more so I’m going to shoot every single time I’m open.’ Well that’s not the way. You just become more aggressive and impact the game in the ways that you can. I thought Reece, as the season wore on, there were times where he really took over.

“I think I’ve seen up to this point him being more assertive and aggressive, and if there is an open shot taking it, but never losing sight of his strengths and how he manages the game and impacts it on both ends.”

Armaan Franklin, driving in the Pepsi Blue/White scrimmage, has been impressed with point guard Kihei Clark. ~ Photo by Kris Wright/TheSabre.com

Armaan Franklin answers which player has impressed him since he arrived on Grounds …

“Kihei stood out to me a lot, just from the first day I got here,” Franklin said. “His leadership on the court was very apparent. He holds people to a high standard as well as himself. I think as a point guard that’s what you need on your team. Very good communicator, very good defender, and he’s improved his shot a lot. I’ve seen it over the summer. Yeah, he blew me away when I got here.”

Franklin on playing in front of fans again …

“Very excited to have fans,” Franklin said. “I haven’t had fans since my freshman year, so it’s been a while, but I’m excited for people to be here to see us, to feel the actual energy of the crowd. I think they are going to be a big help to us.”

Franklin on adjusting to Coach Bennett’s version of the Pack Line. He played the Pack Line under Archie Miller at Indiana.

“I think, for me, the biggest transition is probably just getting to the newer spots,” Franklin said. “A lot more in detail than it was at Indiana. Not to say Indiana was bad or anything. I think me playing the Pack Line at Indiana did help me adjust to here. It’s just fine-tuning the little things. Being in the right position is expected of you at all times. Being in an athletic defensive stance the whole time is something I have to get used to.”

Franklin on fellow transfer Jayden Gardner’s abilities …

“Jayden, he’s a monster,” Franklin said. “He’s 6’6”, 240. He’s powerful, but he has a lot of finesse. He can shoot midrange, he has great postgame, he’s a great offensive rebounder, and he has great touch around the rim. Kind of very tough to guard someone like that who can do those things like that in that type of way. I think he’s going to be great.”

Jayden Gardner on the expectations of having to be a major contributor for the Hoos this season …

“I think I’ve just created those expectations by how I’ve performed in college,” Gardner said. “They brought me here to do a specific job, so I just have to live up to that expectation. I’ve just been exceeding expectations my whole life really, so I just have to go out here and perform. No different.”

Gardner, a North Carolina native, on when it hit him that he was an ACC player …

“Probably our Blue and White scrimmage, putting the jersey on for the first time,” Gardner said. “Just knowing it’s a different jersey. Has ACC on it. Seeing my last name on it. I think that was really surreal to go out there in front of some of the fans for the first time and just settling down, just letting it all come to me. That was really my moment really.”

Gardner later added that playing ACC opponents, especially home-state ACC schools, will be “surreal,” another “moment” for him. He says it will be a “very exciting challenge.”

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