Mining the Ivies

Posted on January 23, 2020 in Recruiting by StLouHoo.

We rarely talk much recruiting during the basketball season, but I let my brain go down a rabbit hole this week and thought it merited a post. We have three 2020 freshmen signed for next year, guys we recruited and signed over the previous two years. But every spring, UVA is involved in the "late cycle" of recruiting. That's the April/May recruiting cycle that focuses on last-minute high school seniors and transfers. Last year, to us, that meant successful signings of Justin McKoy, Tomas Woldetensae, and Sam Hauser. Francisco Caffaro was a late add in 2018, and in 2017 Tony welcomed Nigel Johnson and Francesco Badocchi at the proverbial 11th hour.

So I wanted to start speculating what we might see Tony do for an 11th hour addition this coming spring.

First let's talk need. Here's a quick breakdown of the projected 2020-21 roster:

PG: Kihei Clark (Jr), Reece Beekman (Fr)

Wings: Tomas Woldetensae (Sr), Kody Stattmann (Jr), Casey Morsell (So), Jabri Abdur-Rahim (Fr), Carson McCorkle (Fr)

Forwards: Sam Hauser (RS Sr), Justin McKoy (So)

Centers: Jay Huff (RS Sr), Francisco Caffaro (RS So), Kadin Shedrick (RS Fr)

First, I understand there's some positional semantics involved. I have to generalize somehow, so this is just a starting point, understanding Tony deploys his players a lot of different ways as skill sets and opponents and in-game situations dictate. But for the sake of argument here, I'm going to look at this through Tony's recently-preferred lens of a true point guard, a pair of versatile perimeter-wings, a combo forward at the 4, and a true big man at the 5. 

At the point, I think we like what we have. Kihei is Tony's guy, and Reece is his handpicked successor. At the forward spot, Hauser was second team all-Big East for a reason, and we're going to like his defense and rebounding too, while McKoy should make a big 2nd-year leap in readiness as the backup there. At the 5, Huff is going to get to be the man from Day 1 while 4-stars Caffaro and Shedrick intern behind him. So to me, I don't look at the 1, 4, or 5 and see Tony going out and adding anyone at the risk of upsetting established chemistry and his carefully curated succession plans at each position. He wants his system veterans to start and he wants to groom the young players behind them to be ready to take over in a year or two. (Obviously any attrition at these spots changes things, but I at the moment don't foresee any, so we'll leave that untouched for now.)

So that leaves us with the 2 & 3 spots on the floor, the combo guards and shooting guards and true wings (again, lots of positional semantics).

On one hand, we've got the trio of Woldetensae, Stattmann, and Morsell, none of whom have displayed any consistency this year. On the other hand you've got Abdur-Rahim and McCorkle who have tons of upside and deserved optimism but will still be "just freshmen" in a system that rarely sees freshmen shine. If you want to win a lot of games in Huff's last year / Hauser's only year, which of those five do you trust to give us good, well-rounded efficient minutes at the 2 and 3 next year? Moreso, do you trust that at least three of them will shine enough that you can build a competent 40-minute rotation out of them at both spots?

By no means am I writing any of them off, or suggesting they can't or won't make big leaps in improvement between now and next November (hell, between now and this March!), or that the freshmen are going to be Day 1 ready, and ultimately Tony may decide he's confident enough in those five that no last-minute additions are needed to buffer the lineup for next season. Any last-minute adds may just be a traditional sit-out transfer which effectively become a 2021 recruit.

But what if Tony decides he wants another wing for next year? Maybe he's not overly confident that the returners will turn their respective corners, or maybe someone is transferring out. Maybe he decides Jabri and Carson would benefit from a "bridge year," where a veteran can handle the big minutes while the freshmen are brought along slowly as reserves.

Now we're talking grad-transfer territory, a route Tony's taken only once with Nigel Johnson, though pursued with a couple other options.

At this point, I want to veer into speculation and personal opinion, none of which is rooted in any smoke signals or rumors we've heard. This is just StLouHoo spitting.

I'd like us to take a good, hard look to the Ivy League.

Now, obviously, the Ivy League is a major step down in competition. Usually guys go to the Ivies when they're not good enough in the first place for a power conference scholarship. It's rare to see those guys elevate to a skill level commensurate with the ACC level of competition. It means that even the best Ivy League players need to be held up to a lot of scrutiny to determine if they'll ultimately be able to hang in the ACC. Look down the road at UNC this year and you'll see two guys who crushed it as an all-conference player at smaller schools (Christian Keeling at Charleston Southern, Justin Pierce at W&M) struggle to adapt in the ACC, both ends of the floor.

But let's set that aside for a minute. Let's hypothetically ask, if we were going to look for a small-conference player to make the jump, where's a good place to find them?

The Ivy League is intriguing for a couple of options. One is that, per league rules, players have to leave the team after four years. There's no Five Years to Play Four rule for them. After their fourth season, they have to get their degree and move on, so any player who missed a year due to injury is automatically in play as a grad transfer for their fifth year. Another, more obvious reason is the academic reason. Ivy League players are far more likely to be guys who value their education, who understand the balance between the classroom and the court, and who rather than be scared away by UVA's academic demands may actually be drawn towards them. They chose the Ivy League because their basketball ambition was on par with their academic and career ambition, and to them Virginia's graduate degree options may be very appealling. On top of that, Ivy basketball programs are very system-based, preach good shots and team ball, and value locker room culture. Sound familiar? The goal of any grad transfer search for a tightly-run program like UVA is to find someone who's already a fit on all the intangible levels, and Ivy League guys should often fit that bill.

Now, usually in any given year, the Ivy League may only produce 1 or 2 players worthy of high major attention, if any at all. But this year is kind of an anomoly, as I'm tracking five guys in the "mandatory grad transfer" boat who are going to be worthy of wide recruitment. 

Seth Towns (Columbus, OH) is the biggest name, a former 2016 4-star recruit who picked Harvard out of HS but has missed the last two seasons due to injury. As a sophomore (2017-18 season), the 6'7" 215 lb wing scored 16 ppg and shot 44% on 3's. If he's healthy (maybe a big "if" after December knee surgery), he'll be hotly pursued. The kicker, due to two missed years, he's considered eligible for a hardship waiver, so he'd have TWO years of eligibility remaining. Whereas other guys on this list won't view the NBA as their ultimate goal and could look to UVA as a place to prepare for a post-basketball career while getting to play a seaon in the ACC, Towns will possibly be looking to UVA to make him the next De'Andre Hunter.

At Penn, 6'5" shooting guard Ryan Betley (Downingtown, PA) is scoring 13.3 PPG this year after playing only 1 game as a junior last year due to a knee injury in the first game. He was a double-digit scorer as a freshman and sophomore as well, leading Penn to the NCAA Tournament as a sophomore in 2018. Ryan is a career 39% 3P-shooter to boot.

Over at Yale, 6'9" forward Jordan Bruner (Columbia, SC) is a candidate after missing his sophomore season with a torn mensicus. This year he's scoring 12.8 ppg, grabbing 9.7 boards, and blocking 2.3 shots a game, and hitting 39% from 3. The question for UVA may be if he can pair with Sam Hauser at the 3/4. I think they could, and as lineups get smaller across college basketball I like it as a Moneyball-esque big lineup counter as we've done this year with Huff-Diakite-Key; it's a very NBA-ish approach.

Lastly Columbia has two options, actually, though neither is an ideal positional fit for the needs discussed above. PG Mike Smith (Burr Ridge, IL) went down 8 games into the 2018-19 campaign, so he should be able to waiver that into a 5th year. This year he's scoring 21 ppg (scored 16 against us), hitting 40% on his 3's, and has an A:TO of 4.6 to 2.9. The problem is he's only 5'11", so you'd have to debate how he'd fit in next to Kihei and Tony's willingness to go small next year. The other option is big man Patrick Tape (Charlotte, NC) who's sitting this season simply to go someplace bigger next year. Big man's not a need at the moment for us, and he's already named a Top 3, but he could get a look if Huff leaves to go pro (not expected). The 6'10" 220 lb F/C scored 11.3 ppg and had 1.3 blkpg as a junior last year.

As mentioned above, with any of these five there's a large degree of due diligence scouting that any high-major staff needs to do to vet that they're ACC-level. Just because they're putting up great seasons in the Ivy doesn't mean they're going to walk right into their comfort zone at UVA. But depending what Tony is looking to get out of these guys, and how he sees the need, maybe he only needs them to be role-player-ready as opposed to star-ready, which would be a far more reasonable bar to clear.

So do I think we'll pursue these five guys? Definitely not all five, and maybe none at all, but from my fan's perch right now I could see a case being made for any of them, and it wouldn't surprise me to see one of these names get attached to Virginia come April.