At some point after the commitment of Kody Stattmann, I started talking to StLouHoo behind the scenes wondering if Tony were moving to a Gonzaga model of roster-building, and if we would not see that intensify with the flameout of 2017-18 pursuing blue chip high school/AAU stars. Gonzaga has built an excellent, sustained program without bringing in consistent top 50 or even top 100 high school players. Say what you will about their post-season performance - and I have done my share of saying - they tend to at least win their first game and have a healthy sprinkling of second weekend appearances with that title game of two years ago. They've done it by relying heavily on Canadian and offshore players, and combining them with transfers and solid but unheralded high school kids.
Now Tony has completed a whirlwind courtship of Argentinian by way of Australia Francisco Caffaro. The way Caffaro fits into the context of UVA recruiting following the commitment of De'Andre Hunter all those years ago moves my thinking on this from wondering into hypothesizing. In the 2.5 years after Hunter committed in August 2015, the Cavaliers have successfully recruited six players, three of them born and raised in the United States, and the other three from overseas. Of those three, Francesco Badocchi played two years of American high school ball at Kansas powerhouse Bishop Miege.
Recruiting foreign players is not something new for Bennett. He has had them in the past and he has famously attempted to get others. But the suspicion here is that he might find the international market to be more hospitable. The foreign players do not (yet) grow up with the privilege of their American counterparts. In most countries of the world, it is the soccer leagues that are the Promised Land, soccer the sport that most puts the euro signs in players' and families' eyes. The international players looking to come to America to play college ball know that they need to develop. They expect it. They also know the value of an American university degree. They are, in short, more likely to have genuine interest in what Tony Bennett and the University of Virginia are offering than the prototypical (some might say stereotypical) top 100 AAU player.
In these last two years, Tony has been very successful in international recruiting. Badocchi had real offers, real high major interest and represents a top level talent from Italy. Stattmann was the best prospect out of Australia in his class. While his offer list was not laden with Blue Bloods, it did include most of the biggest players in the Australian market. St. Mary's and New Mexico have experience in Australia and are well-known there. Getting Stattmann represents a strong incursion into a new market - and now it has brought in Caffaro. Caffaro is a player I believe Tony sees as a Plan A type. The way he ran out of a VAF social for the visit, the way he put on the full-court press and took an immediate commitment at this point in the cycle with none of our targets having committed, tell me that he considers Caffaro a priority talent, maybe not right with Tshiebwe and Igiehon, but not far below them and ahead of any of the other 2019 bigs we were recruiting.
Transfers have always been part of Bennett's talent acquisition at UVA. While Austin Nichols failed to yield dividends for the program, he was a highly-rated high school player who came to UVA as a transfer, much like Gonzaga's Kyle Wiltjer. Gonzaga tends to get higher-rated American players as transfers than it does as incoming freshmen (tends to - Zach Collins a notable exception). Braxton Key is another example that Virginia could be in the same situation. By the time a top 100 kid has been in college a year or two, he is likely to have been disabused of many of his unrealistic expectations, discovered that most of the promises were as legit as an internet investment ad, and become more interested in developing his game and getting that degree. If he had been recruited by Bennett out of high school - as all of our transfers were - he will remember the way he was treated and where better to get development and education than the University of Virginia with Tony Bennett and Mike Curtis?
Braxton Key's comments as reported in ESPN play perfectly into that theme (which was written on Thursday):
"In high school during the recruitment process, the things that impacted my decisions were completely different than they are now.... I chose Virginia because of the relationship with the coaches since high school. I love how close the team is, and it's my uncle Ralph Sampson's alma mater."
Being able to consistently pull in Plan A/B calibre international players and transfers makes it less crucial to pull players out of that top 100 pool where you have to strike at least 60% of the prospects off the list before even beginning to recruit, simply because they won't be interested in the prospect of having to work hard in school and also earn their opportunities from the ground up. You find a Casey Morsell, and you supplement him with a transfer, an international, and an under-exposed player or two and you can keep a roster stocked with good players. Gonzaga has built a roster this way for years, with players who make their name at Gonzaga.
I will be watching to see if Bennett continues to sign a steady stream of international players. Jack Salt was his first at UVA (he had Australian Aron Baynes and Serbian Nikola Koprivica at Washington State as well), then two years later Mamadi Diakite signed, and now 3 of the last 6 freshman recruits have been international. Too early to tell - without comment from Bennett or the coaching staff, which will not happen - whether this is by design, or simply the oscillating fluctuations of life.