Isaac Traudt had high hopes last fall. A 6-foot-10 stretch four from the inaccurately named town of Grand Island, Neb., Traudt was a top-50 prospect who chose to start his college career at Virginia over North Carolina, Michigan State and Gonzaga, among others. Once practice began in Charlottesville, however, it was apparent Traudt would have a tough time cracking the rotation. Following a difficult conversation with coach Tony Bennett, Traudt agreed to sit out the season as a redshirt. “I was bummed it came to that. I definitely planned on coming in and making an immediate impact,” Traudt says.
Traudt says he understood the merits of taking time to develop without burning a year of eligibility, but as the season wore on he felt a deep longing for his family and girlfriend back home. He decided to enter the transfer portal on March 27, and four days later committed to Creighton. Traudt insists the decision was driven primarily by homesickness — “Even if I played 30 minutes (a game), I’d probably be making the same move,” he says — but he also acknowledges that style of play was a factor. “They’re very defense-oriented (at Virginia) and that’s won them a lot of games, but I’m not the most elite defender in the world. My strength in basketball is offense, which Creighton really utilizes,” he says.
Now it was Bennett’s turn to be bummed. “That one hurt,” he says. “We turned away some good players because of him.”
It is one thing to lose a player to the portal. It is quite another to lose a top prospect developed for a year before that player ever plays a game on an orange-and-navy-accented court. The former is the cost of doing business in modern college basketball, one every coach, even the most traditional, at least begrudgingly accepts. The latter, though, struck at the very heart of Virginia’s long-term model for team-building and player development — a model facing more evident challenges in 2023 than it ever has before.
It is hardly unusual these days for a college basketball program to face a deep rebuild, but in Virginia’s case, the threats are particularly ominous. The Cavaliers are coming off yet another first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament, a 68-67 loss to No. 13-seeded Furman, and still have not won a tourney game since the 2019 national championship, which itself followed their historic first-round loss to 16th-seeded UMBC the previous year. To be fair, there have been extenuating circumstances. In 2021, the Cavs had to exit the ACC tournament because of a COVID-19 issue, which forced them to miss a week of practice and arrive in the Indianapolis bubble the day before their first-round game against another No. 13 seed Ohio, which they lost, 62-58. They failed to qualify for the 2022 tourney after finishing sixth in the ACC, but after rebounding to earn a share of the regular-season crown last season, the Cavs lost Ben Vander Plas to a broken hand right before the start of the ACC tournament. Even the loss to UMBC was preceded by a season-ending wrist injury to De’Andre Hunter, a future lottery pick.
The Furman debacle resurrected the argument that Bennett’s famously plodding, defense-oriented system is not ready-made for the postseason. Bennett has won too many games in March — besides the championship, he has also gone to an Elite Eight and two Sweet 16s, including one at Washington State — for that to warrant full merit. (Arizona played one of the fastest tempos in the country last season, and the Wildcats still got bounced by 15th-seeded Princeton in the first round.)
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The more salient question, in the wake of Traudt’s departure, the transfer of center Kadin Shedrick, and the age-mandated hollowing of one of the nation’s oldest rosters a season ago, is whether in today’s environment, Bennett can still recruit enough talented players who will not only come to Charlottesville but also stay there long enough to learn the Virginia Way.
Relative to other ACC teams, Virginia is hardly experiencing outsized effects of the transfer epidemic — 12 players have transferred out of the program in the last four classes, which places the Hoos in the middle of the pack relative to the rest of the ACC (when accounting for all transfers regardless of minutes, per VerbalCommits.com). Still, at a program that doesn’t want to have to microwave new rosters every season, each significant transfer can feel like a disproportionate blow.
This sport has entered a strange new world, to put it mildly, one that bears little resemblance to Bennett’s original conception of a college basketball program. How will Virginia survive and advance?
Bennett’s answer is unconventional, counterintuitive, and very much reflective of his core beliefs. “I’m going to double down on what we believe is the way to do it at Virginia, and that’s through retention,” he says. “Can we do everything in our power to keep these guys together for two or three years? I think everyone is in experimental mode right now, and I’m not saying 100 percent that it can be done. But you have to do things that are aligned with your university, aligned with how you want to do things, and then run your program the way you want it to run.”
In 2023, retention is quite a gamble, especially for a guy with such a conservative reputation. Of course, few coaches can match Bennett’s record of consistent excellence. The Cavs have won or shared six of the last 10 ACC regular season championships. They have more wins in the league than any other team over the last 11 years.
For his entire tenure, Bennett’s secret weapon has been player development, the mundane but fruitful yearslong grind. Virginia players, many of them not elite prospects when they arrive, almost always get better, oftentimes by a lot. That was what attracted Shedrick to the program in the first place.
“Coming out of high school, I was good, but I was raw,” Shedrick says. “Most coaches are out here telling you you’ll play right away, but for me, redshirting was already something I thought would be best for me, before I even stepped foot on Grounds. And then you look at what Virginia had done in the past, with guys like De’Andre Hunter, and there was a whole list of guys who it paid off for.”
The plan mostly worked: Shedrick redshirted in 2019 and improved steadily over the next two years, becoming a more important piece in Virginia’s mix along the way. Then, in 2022-23, when all of that development was designed to fully pay off, Shedrick’s playing time was limited by the arrival of Vander Plas, a 6-8 super senior transfer from Ohio. In mid-January, despite Shedrick’s strong efficiency and rebounding rate stats, Bennett replaced the center in the starting lineup, allowing the Hoos to squeeze more perimeter shooting on the floor. They won 11 of their next 14 games, but Shedrick was frustrated by the demotion. While Virginia’s staff hoped he would return for another year, the writing was on the wall.
“I loved my four years and my relationships with everybody there, but I just felt like it was the right time for me to move on and have a change of scenery on and off the floor,” Shedrick says.
His departure, alongside Traudt’s, exacerbated a mass exodus that was already rocking the program. Four senior starters — three of whom exhausted their eligibility, plus a fourth who elected not to return for a super senior season — are leaving. The fifth starter, 6-3 junior guard Reece Beekman, has entered the NBA Draft, and while he has retained his collegiate eligibility, the positive reviews Beekman earned last week at the league’s Draft Combine in Chicago indicate he is unlikely to return. Throw in the additional transfer of senior center Francisco Caffaro, who is headed to Santa Clara after averaging 8.2 minutes, and Bennett is looking at a vastly different roster than the one that was the fourth-oldest team in the country last season, according to KenPom. “This will be one of our least experienced teams we’ve ever had here,” he says. “We’re going to be a bunch of first-year freshmen and sophomores.”
That concern led Bennett to sign two super seniors out of the transfer portal, 6-7 guard Jacob Groves from Oklahoma and 6-8 forward Jordan Minor from Merrimack. Two other transfers, 6-6 freshman guard Andrew Rohde from St. Thomas and 6-foot junior Dante Harris from Georgetown, have multiple years of eligibility remaining. Bennett is also adding three freshmen, two of whom are rated as four-star prospects by 247Sports, as well as 6-5 guard Leon Bond III, who redshirted last season as a true freshman.
Bennett acknowledges that his program’s slow pace allows opponents to stay close even when Virginia is the more talented team, as is usually the case during the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Asking players to stick around long enough to master his system is a tall task given how easily today’s players can change schools without having to sit out a year. “That type of offense is very scripted, so it leads to a lot of overthinking,” says Casey Morsell, a 6-3 guard who transferred from Virginia to NC State following his sophomore year in 2021. “I was trying to be somebody I wasn’t. That’s pretty much why I made the move.”
If Bennett’s players wonder why they should see it through, they can look to the success his guys have had after leaving Virginia. Bennett has never recruited a five-star player out of high school, yet nine of his former players are in the NBA. The list includes Jay Huff, a 7-1 center who spent last season on a two-way contract with the Washington Wizards and was named the NBA G League’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Huff redshirted his first year in Charlottesville and then played four years, including the last two as a starter. “There were definitely times when I did consider transferring,” Huff says. There were several distinct moments in his career — including during the national title campaign, when some fans were critical of Bennett’s (eventually vindicated) preference for undersized freshman guard Kihei Clark in the starting lineup — when Virginia fans clamored for more Huff minutes, when his mix of size and offensive perimeter potential seemed to be wasted in Bennett’s defense-first roster configurations, when the noise might have pushed another similarly talented player toward the door.
For Huff, the biggest challenge — and one he didn’t fully grok until later in his career — was becoming so intuitive in Virginia’s pack-line defensive scheme that he no longer needed to actively consider it in the moment. (Huff’s foul trouble, and a lack of associated coaching trust, were the most obvious manifestation of this misunderstanding.) For some players, this process takes one season; for some it takes even less. For many, it requires them to marinate in double-the-post timing for years before they truly master it, until all they know is the system. For Huff, it was his first two seasons plus. Even when he was frustrated, the “why am I not playing more?” answer from UVa coaches was consistent and clear.
“It’s a really hard defense to learn,” Huff says. “They would never lie and say that it wasn’t. They tell you that. They want you to know that when they’re recruiting you.”
For many players — particularly 7-footers with the ability to shoot 36 percent from 3 — this dynamic might have precipitated a decision to look elsewhere. Huff, having long since known what he was getting himself into, never really tipped over into active transfer interest.
“I think there is huge value in sticking it out,” Huff says. “I totally understand getting somewhere and it not being what you thought, and having the ability to make another decision — that’s a good thing. I also think there is something to be said for players being adaptable.
“But it is tough. The new landscape is going to make it difficult for them to get the players that they want, because a lot of players see it differently now. That’s just how it is. It’s not anybody’s fault necessarily. It’s just kind of how things are going.”
As a counterpoint, there is Trey Murphy III, a 6-9 junior transfer from Rice who spent one season at Virginia — after getting COVID-waiver eligible a year earlier than anyone planned when he committed — and left to become the 17th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft less than a year after he arrived in Charlottesville. “If you’re a good player you’re going to play, whatever your system is,” Bennett says.
Murphy, in fact, is one of several transfers who have enjoyed success at Virginia. Three of last season’s starters were transfers, and in recent years Bennett also brought in Braxton Key, who played two years at Virginia after transferring from Alabama, and Sam Hauser, who came from Marquette. If Bennett’s efforts at retention fall through, he can always turn back to the portal, but that would undercut his message on the value of sticking things out. After all, if Bennett had stuck it out with Shedrick instead of bringing in Vander Plas, Shedrick might still be a Cavalier. Then again, maybe Virginia wouldn’t have won as many games as it did last season.
The elephant in the portal, of course, is the new marketplace for Name, Image and Likeness contracts. The official NIL collective of Virginia athletics, Cav Futures, is trying to ramp up its resources, but it is not yet paying at the same level as many of its competitors. It has also taken a fundamentally different approach to its relationships with players than some, one that is “more cautious” than many other schools, Cav Futures director of marketing and athlete engagement Maddie Walsh says.
“With the basketball program, the coaches and the administration were aware that they needed an NIL program, but they weren’t going to blow anything out of the water like some schools that have gone in with two feet,” Walsh says. “We try to take an approach that’s on brand to Virginia and palatable to our community.”
Cav Futures is thus focused on work in the community and actual earned experience — in other words, like, actually doing stuff, rather than a token Instagram post every few weeks. Sometimes that’s a trip to the Ronald McDonald House; sometimes it’s a Twitch streaming partnership and an associated seminar on building a content creation business. “If you’re going to do it, you’re going to put in the work, and the relationship with the collective is going to be proactive and real,” Walsh says. “There are a lot of big numbers that get thrown around out there. Virginia wants to be competitive, but they still want to be authentic.”
This sounds all well and good, but Traudt and Shedrick will both receive more NIL money at their new destinations than they would have earned had they stayed. Shedrick knew this when he entered the portal, though he is eager to note that it didn’t define his decision — indeed, he told recruiters not to tell him anything about NIL opportunities until he had already made a decision on the basketball merits. “I want to have a future in basketball, and I really didn’t want to make a short-term decision based on a number,” Shedrick says. He’s not turning down what Texas will offer him next season, of course, but he thinks anyone who wants to go to Virginia won’t have short top of mind. “Genuinely, guys in that locker room, they don’t care in that same way,” Shedrick says. “That’s not why they’re there. That culture is real.”
Bennett knows the program needs to do a better job on this front, but he doesn’t sound like a guy who is eager to win a bunch of bidding wars. “There absolutely will be opportunities for our guys, but it’s not a goal for us to have the biggest NIL pot in college sports,” he says. “We’re looking for guys who want to have a holistic experience, to have a chance to play pro ball and get a world-class education in the process. If it’s just about finding the highest price tag, then that’s probably not going to be at Virginia.”
That is one of many ways in which the new world order will challenge this perennially old-school program. There is a stubbornness here, an unwillingness to to be moved, that is either admirable or foolhardy or both. Virginia will flex tactically; Bennett has experimented with different offensive systems several times in the last decade, including when Virginia won its national title, and he played a radical five-out system with Huff, Hauser and Murphy in the frontcourt in 2021. It will get marginally more money into the NIL pot. But the foundational strategic vision, the core values, are not subject to alteration.
If that means losing a talented redshirt from a gutted roster before the kid ever plays a minute for his team, well, so be it. Fellow coaches admire this devotion; they also attempt to use it to their advantage.
“Maybe the NIL stuff won’t be as big of a deal for them, based on the kind of player they attract. But keeping guys patient could be a real challenge going forward,” one competing ACC assistant says, speaking on the condition of anonymity so he could speak freely.
Bennett has been doubted before, and yet he has managed to build one of the nation’s truly elite programs. He has reason to believe he can navigate the shifting terrain. “Like the saying goes, you walk by faith, not by sight,” he says. “A lot of people will count us out and say they lost all this experience, but it excites me to be able to work with these new guys that I think have the same vision as I do. I’m not pretending to have all the answers, but I believe we’re headed in a good direction.”
(Top photo of Tony Bennett: Ryan Hunt / Getty Images)