Opportunities for Improvement in 2023 Part 1 – Redshirting Strategy

Phew! What a whirlwind of an offseason so far. Hopefully you’ve now read my self-assessment/lessons learned from 2022-2023 here. Building off of that, and what we’ve seen across the college basketball landscape both last year and seasons prior, we’re going to have some more “Commentary From The Corner” where I just discuss the areas in which I think we need to improve in order to more regularly make deep NCAA runs.

If you’re new to this site – these takeaway posts are going to be (mostly) without video which is not typical, but it comes from watching all of the games several times over and pulling clips from all (but 3 this year) of the games. You can look at my takeaways from any specific game this year from my home page. Informed by how the team has played, almost all of the content in this series is going to be focused on the high-level strategy around roster building and utilization. Additionally, I am starting to have my ear a little closer to the ground in a few areas, so I have some additional insight. Please note, the purpose of this segment of pieces is to digest everything we’ve seen over the past year or so and focus on areas of improvement; so it is naturally going to be critical because that’s the entire point of the exercise. Generally speaking, we are still coming off of a co-regular season title and we probably over-achieved based on preseason expectations everywhere except for in the NCAA Tournament. It was an accomplished and successful season. Still, this is definitely the time for reflection for the players and the coaching staff, especially in the wake of recent player turnover.

Previously, I had planned on doing all of this in one big piece but, given the continual developments and changing landscape I’ve decided instead, rather than to wait entirely, to break it up into pieces and release them in parts as the timing seems right (should also make the writing a little easier!). For this first installment, we’re going to focus on our redshirt strategy recently, previously, and ideally, moving forward. Let’s get into it.

The Team Colors Are Orange and Blue, NOT Red!

This is a topic that has been discussed in depth (ad nauseam?) over the years but, is once again very relevant and there’s a different dynamic on it now with the transfer portal having the meteoric impact that it has. Things change really fast. So much so that I was excited when I heard about Isaac Traudt’s redshirt at the beginning of the year. “Oh! You mean he’ll hit the weights, polish his shot, learn the defense, and THEN we’ll get him for four more years after this and won’t lose a year of PT from him in a crowded backcourt???” Sign me up for that, I thought, especially after Caffaro, Shedrick, and BVP all looked quite good in that first game against North Carolina Central. So, for those of you who think I’m being too critical, I’m saying I likely would have made the exact same mistake after watching that first game and having to rely on my core rotation to win an unexpectedly close game. Heck, remember how spry BVP was earlier in the season compared to later?

These aren’t exercises in blame – fault isn’t the point or the outcome. They’re simply ideas on what we could change for improvement, and the rationale.

A season later, Isaac Traudt just recently announced his intention to transfer, which should absolutely be a wakeup call for how we manage our players and playing time. Let’s first address two common responses to all of this – two-fold, both that the redshirt was Traudt’s idea, and that, because he’s homesick, the redshirt didn’t change that. Basically, that we were always doomed to lose him and nothing could have been done to improve the situation.

I disagree with both the premise and the conclusion. Firstly, with a player like Leon Bond (and we’ll talk about his situation in a bit), who you recruit specifically with that option on the forefront and the player is on board from the jump, it’s a different calculus. Traudt was not recruited in that same way. Sure, UVa coaches always let the player know that it’s an option that they can pursue and they never guarantee playing time (or technically force a redshirt), but players are confident and many at that level assume that they’ll be able to make a push for time. I know that Traudt did not intend to redshirt when he first came here, and he said as much publicly when asked about his decision; first saying no to it prior to the season starting and then deciding to after the North Carolina Central game when he didn’t play. This point can’t be emphasized enough – he did not choose to redshirt until after he didn’t get any minutes against an opponent who he likely should have, in theory, been able to get some run against. Sure, he said it was because he saw the speed of the game, etc. That’s the “correct” thing to say publicly – to talk about the benefits of the decision and how it was going to impact your game. You can’t expect him to flat out say, “I saw that I didn’t play and I wanted to save a year of eligibility if that was going to be my level of use.” Again, bear in mind, this was not what he wanted coming into the season, he’s been playing against these guys all year, by all accounts, he did really well in Italy AND in the secret scrimmages against much better competition than NCCU. The idea that he did all of that (including playing against UCONN in person) and then, all of a sudden, was just awed by the size/speed of the game in the premier isn’t very believable.

To think that CTB didn’t play a significant (I’d say, by far, the largest) role in crafting this outcome is naive. It was CTB’s decision not to play him in that game and he certainly could have discouraged the redshirt or strongly assured him that there would be more opportunities if he wanted to utilize him this season. “No, we’ll need you this year, the NCCU game was closer than we anticipated but we’ll definitely get you in vs. Monmouth and will keep working you in throughout the year if you’re playing well.” Something along those lines would have been easy to imagine him saying and changing the outcome, given what we know Traudt’s desire to have been. Instead, he steered Traudt toward this decision through whatever he chose to say, or not to say, during that conversation. We know this through his press conferences where he’s flat out said that he agreed with the decision. Traudt, seeing the writing on the wall and already having had discussions about how some nights he’d play and others he wouldn’t, went to CTB with the “idea himself” after seeing no time against NCCU. Basically, what I’m saying that this idea that his decision to redshirt couldn’t have impacted his decision to leave because it was his is silly. It was his decision given the circumstances in which he found himself, created by CTB.

When Traudt committed, he didn’t have visibility into our staff bringing in another, veteran, player with a very similar skillset to his in BVP. It just wasn’t part of the equation in choosing to come here at the time he made the decision. But, is there any doubt, especially after waiting until after the first game, that Traudt would have decided to play if given the opportunity and some legit run? It would require a pretty significant suspension of disbelief to go with another theory.

Now let’s pause for a moment to be very clear that it wasn’t “wrong” or “bad” for CTB to recruit a transfer in over Traudt. Nothing is guaranteed and it’s his job to field the very best team that he can each and every season. But, there are some questions that need to be considered in so doing. Were there options available within the roster to get Traudt some time/minutes over the course of the season even with BVP on the team? I’ll spend more time focusing on in a later piece. If not, was it worth risking several more years of Traudt for this one year of BVP? That’s the kind of future thinking question that CTB doesn’t tend to like to engage with; rather focusing on playing the best possible team right now – but I’ll continue to make the case below and in future pieces that it’s one on which we need to start putting more emphasis. And, honestly along with that risk, was BVP that much better than Traudt? In all of the offseason contests, he didn’t seem to be. The consensus seemed to be that BVP was a more polished player, an experienced defender, better passer who was more ready physically, where Traudt was just straight up the best shooter on the team, a better pure scorer, and longer when contesting shots and on the glass, but considerably worse at team defense. Given how our team played in the ACC Tournament, I think it’s safe to say that we were better when we had BVP as an option to use (not always in how we used him) but that we didn’t need him to be competitive. Similarly, I suspect we could have been better with Traudt as an option off of the bench in some games but that we didn’t need him to be competitive. So, even accepting the likelihood that BVP was, in fact, better that Traudt in the situations where he was best utilized, I’m very skeptical that it was enough such that it was preferable to not using Traudt all given the risk it created and especially given the outcome.

The second point I hear often is that Traudt playing throughout the season wouldn’t have cured homesickness and he would have left anyway. Firstly, that’s entirely speculative and, in a vacuum, I’d imagine that homesickness is amplified when there’s also a sense of isolation from the rest of the team as well as from home. Playing alongside teammates, thriving, competing, that tends to cure a lot of ills, and it’s hard to get that same rush of belonging or thriving from the other side of the looking glass. Now that we’ve established that redshirting was not something he intended to, or wanted to do coming into the season, it’s common sense that it adds to the risk of losing him. That’s just the logical risk assessment of the situation. I do have some line of sight in that there was more to the decision around leaving than just being homesick. No doubt, being closer to home was a pull and a factor, but it’s being portrayed as the sole reason. Now, I say portrayed – that’s the factor flat out listed in the statement – and it makes sense that it would be, right? It’s a good, and real, reason that everyone can accept that doesn’t place any blame on either party. But how often are any major life decisions like this just one reason? How often to people leave jobs in which they’re fully engaged and happy for the unknown when they don’t really have to? It is impossible to say that he would still be on the team if he had played and been given good run last year; we’ll never know. But it’s also nearly impossible to think that the odds wouldn’t have at least been better.

Now, let’s look back at some of the historical precedent for this. There are many guys who have gone this route but De’Andre Hunter first comes to mind as someone who was insanely talented but who redshirted his first year. It’s been well documented that he “felt betrayed” by the decision at first, harkening to a similar vibe created by the Traudt situation where he always knew that it was a possibility but didn’t likely think that it would be applicable to him. Now, this was before the immediate transfer rules and we still almost lost Hunter as it was (it was also used against us on the recruiting trail), but both seeing the benefit of the program (especially Mike Curtis) and, ostensibly, also not wanting to sit out another year kept him in Charlottesville and we know the rest of the story after the following two years. It’s not surprising that once he actually got his opportunity and seized it (and the team was very successful as a result), that his view of things changed. It also doesn’t take much of a leap to suspect that we would have lost him to the portal under the current rules because of the unexpected redshirt. Now, maybe we wouldn’t have made that same decision under the current rules but, if Traudt is any indication as a higher recruit and more highly skilled offensive player out of high school, I find that hard to believe. That being said, as it stood, we still only got two years of Hunter in uniform before he jumped to the league. The idea was to redshirt him to maximize the number of years the program could benefit from him on the court but, instead, we almost lost him AND we only got the two years anyway.

This is increasingly common as you start to dabble with the types of talented players that you need to compete at a high level. Trey Murphy was supposed to sit out a year and then play two. Instead, he got a waiver, played one year immediately, and left immediately thereafter (great move, as he’s blowing up the league now). Neither Guy nor Jerome were expected to be threats to leave for the league early on in their careers, but after having that team success and exposure (which is always the goal), seized that moment. Even Diakite tested the NBA waters after the championship run before returning, and he wasn’t even a fulltime starter until the postseason that year! The timeline is expedited both in general and especially if things go well. If these guys play the way that you want them to, then it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to hold them for long. If you hold them off the court to develop them initially, now they have all of the leverage to just leave the program with no repercussions. It’s that old expression about a bird in the hand being better than two in the bush. For players of this talent-level, whether or not we’ve accepted it as a program yet, we’re backed into a corner now. We’ve got to get them run and, almost assuredly, they will be able to contribute (and if they don’t, then either they’ll stay until they get it or you’ll realize it’s not as big of a loss if they go).

The issue is entirely the talent and upside of the player. Isaac Traudt is a 6’10” sniper who was virtually top 50 recruit nationally (51st). A player like him will always be sought after by most schools in the country unless he’s given ample court time and just doesn’t look good. He picked our program knowing that there would be more opportunity after this year but also hoping to earn his way onto the floor. By recruiting a transfer to play ahead of him and in the way we utilized our rotations, we closed the door on his opportunity after he signed on. To complete the point, when so much is uncertain now across college basketball and players are entering the portal left and right (almost 1,200 in right now) – a player of that talent level could either leave for another school or they could blow up the season they get run and turn pro sooner than expected. You cannot count on locking them in for four years regardless, but especially not if they’re unexpectedly redshirting. So, if your goal is to keep them as long as you can, you better at least keep them active, play them some, give them the chance to earn time (see: McKneely and Dunn not being considered risks at all). Get what you can from them when you can, and that starts right away. Expedite your timeline and be willing to increase your rotational depth for these kinds of guys. This dovetails with some other points I’ll make in a different piece later on but, just to reiterate, whether or not Isaac Traudt would have left or stayed had his playing time situation been different is almost beside the point. The point is that the circumstances made the decision easier for him and a situation to make the decision more difficult wasn’t fostered.

What’s happened already has happened already, but I’m thinking about this for Elijah Gertrude. He’s the highest rated recruit and most explosive athlete we’ve had set to join the program in a long time. He’s also recovering from a knee injury and just recently said in an interview that he was working hard to be ready for the beginning of the season. Now, the absolute LAST thing I think we should do is have him target that goal, work hard to get there, be ready (either by the season or shortly after) only to redshirt him based on opportunity. Read his engagement in that interview. He’s working toward being ready and wants that opportunity. Even if he’s not healthy right away but would get there by a month or two into the season I’d strongly consider keeping him available… even if Armaan Franklin and Reece Beekman return and all of a sudden we have a crowded backcourt…. I would STRONGLY recommend against redshirting this player. The chances he’s here for a full four years if everything goes to plan anyways is minimal. Keep him engaged. Get him some experience on the court. BENEFIT from his skills. If there had been any thought to redshirting Elijah, learn from this season and launch that thought into the Sun.

Now, let’s pause for a brief moment to talk about Leon Bond who, in his own right, is also incredibly gifted, redshirted this season, and certainly seems engaged and ready to go. These circumstances are very different. For one, Bond is the kind of player who compares more favorably to Diakite, Huff (who we kept off of the floor for far too long but definitely needed an initial redshirt), and Shedrick. Each of these players had something about their game that needed dramatic enhancement and, by all accounts, committed to the program with the assumption that they likely would be redshirted. Shedrick recently said on an interview with Sam Brunelle that redshirting was something he saw as a positive which makes sense as he really needed to bulk up and was more raw from a basketball perspective. The same is true of Huff (significant weight issues) and Diakite (was still very new to the game of basketball). Bond already had the body/athleticism for the game but had a lot of work to do on his shot. Now, generally speaking, I think Bond was a more polished/physically ready player than any of those listed above AND has access to the portal… so I still think it’s a risk. I also think there were probably times where having him available could have proved beneficial this year. BUT, it’s still one of those things where you can probably afford to take that risk IF the player is far enough away in their development and they’re expecting that it is likely going to happen before they commit. At the end of the day, though, it has to be an assessment based on the player’s potential ceiling. If Bond is the kind of player who could become good enough to turn pro before the end of his four years (which he probably is), then you probably shouldn’t risk it in order to keep the talent level in your funnel as high as possible.

And this is really the crux of this entire discussion. What is the upside of the player and how likely are you going to be able to find a player with as much potential/talent/ability to impact our team ceiling in the portal? With regard to this season, that answer remains TBD. It’s certainly possible we’ll net more talent in than we’re seeing leave. But, this is the first season where at least two of the players out (and I’ll focus specifically on the transfer portal in my next piece) are ones that I know for a fact CTB tried hard to keep and was unsuccessful in doing so, and where it’s also unclear that the guys back will be favorable impacts in replacement (especially when considering knowledge of the system in addition to talent). More to come on this over the next few weeks/months as we start to see our roster finalize but, for the continued purposes of this discussion, that’s the lens through which we should view guys who are redshirt considerations or who aren’t getting much time – “how likely are we to be able to grab a better player in the portal if they were to leave?” along with the ubiquitous, “could this player be a positive piece during a championship run?”

For this coming year, I think this means you probably also just want to keep Blake Buchanan active and growing with the program. By all accounts, he could be a typical redshirt target for the program (assuming that we add lots of transfer talent to the frontcourt and don’t NEED to play him). He’s an incredibly athletic player who is long but under-sized weight-wise at 210 lbs. with lots of room to bulk up during the offseason programs. He’s not the kind of guy who would typically get much early run in a CTB program and he’s already talked about the potential for redshirting – putting him much more in line with where Leon Bond and Ryan Dunn were coming into the season than where Isaac Traudt was. That being said, he’s from all the way across the country in Idaho and was heavily recruited by Gonzaga, a program he’s mentioned that he grew up admiring. This is one of those situations that will be a good litmus test as to whether or nor our philosophy has changed at all (assuming we do bring in some quality transfers). Considering all of the discussion above, I’d much prefer to see us err on the side of keeping Buchanan active and finding a way to utilize him some rather than redshirting him and risking a full inactive season with West Coast voices in his ears.

And, if you look at this year’s team, CTB absolutely has the ability to do this, it’s just about his approach and how he views the player. He gave Isaac McKneely 21.5 minutes per game this season, despite having Reece Beekman, Kihei Clark, and Armaan Franklin slotted into the 1-3. There were times, especially early in the season, when IMK did not perform at a good replacement level for those players. He was working on his shot at the beginning of the season, he was working on his handle, his playmaking, his defense, and his confidence. By the end of the season, he looked and felt like an entirely different player, ready to break out next year. He did the same with Ryan Dunn, although much more conservatively, averaging 13 minutes per game this year. Now, while I would make the case (and I may in a different piece, but may not) that Dunn could have been utilized much more than he was, that’s still a quality amount of run to whet his whistle, get him involved and adjusted, and upon which to build. Both of these guys are model examples of what we should be aiming toward and working to build upon with our most talented freshmen, and Traudt could have been included (will repeat, but more on this topic to come).

Historically, when players had the significant deterrent of sitting out a full season after transferring, I would say that our strategy was mostly effective. Hunter being the biggest exception as someone we almost lost and then also left the program early, there were many more examples of players who took that year, developed, and then stayed with us a full four, basically giving us quite a few super-seniors over the years. Jay Huff, Mamadi Diakite, and Kadin Shedrick I mentioned (unfortunate about Shedrick but that’s for the next piece) but also Devon Hall who was a starter on some of our best teams, briefly got into the NBA and still plays professionally. But NOW, under the new rules, this strategy just adds so much more risk into the equation.

I wanted to make the case above first prior to jumping into what’s happening elsewhere, but a member on the Locker Room Access board pointed out something pretty glaring a little while back that stuck with me. Of ALL of the top 75 composite ranked recruits within the 2022 class, the ONLY two players who didn’t see any playing time outside of a religious mission, legal issues, or injury, were Isaac Traudt and Leon Bond. Of everyone in the top 100, only Rowan Brumbaugh from Texas voluntarily redshirted other than our two guys. It illustrates that our program is truly unique across college basketball in the way we’re still aggressively using our redshirt for high profile, top recruits. And, while sometimes it’s good to be unique in ways because it can offer you a competitive advantage, sometimes it’s a sign of not having yet evolved with the times. This is a situation where I think we’re in the latter category and need to evolve. The risk/reward equation has shifted with regard to these players and so should we shift.

One last counterpoint I could see – there still have been plenty of guys we’ve brought into the program who haven’t redshirted and who we’ve still lost to the portal. Jabri Abdur-Rahim neither redshirted nor saw the floor often during his lone year here, despite being one of our more highly touted recruits. Casey Morsell lasted two seasons and did see playing time, but not as much as he wanted and likely saw a difficult path to playing time as Reece Beekman had jumped ahead of him in minutes. Igor Milicic Jr. couldn’t find the court last season despite our desperate need for depth and size at the PF position, and he left to go and help Ron Sanchez win a CBI title. Two quick things on this – for one, I do think we need to shift our philosophy toward playing time for younger guys, which I’ve mentioned I’ll tackle in a later piece. But, secondly, at least in these situations you know what you have in the players, can see them on the floor against competition outside of the program, and have control over those minutes as CTB sees fit (which will hopefully err a little more toward developmental minutes, especially if we continue to increase the talent pool on our roster). CTB can have the honest conversations that he typically does about their playing time prospects during the offseason, either encouraging them to stay or not. If it is a player who we like the development of and have a big role for in the future, he will certainly communicate as much and there is added incentive for someone who has already used a season of eligibility to stay in a program and system that they know as opposed to someone who could have a completely fresh start with a full four years. Regardless, there are still going to be times that you just lose recruits; but having given them run through the season gives you a lot more information on whether or not that’s a bad thing, gives them more incentive to stay if you make them a priority, and allows us to feel confident that we did the best that we reasonably could to have kept them. This may have ended up as Traudt’s situation anyway, but at least we would have known that there was no alternative timeline (hopefully this isn’t The Darkest).

In Conclusion

That was a lot of words for what could have been easily summarized as “stop redshirting healthy top 100 recruits.” But it’s a conversation that’s been around the program for a long time. I think it’s important to stress just HOW unique we are in this approach compared to every other program out there, and how much the landscape has relevantly changed in just the past couple of years. It was, until very recently, a strategy that allowed us to build more experienced and deeper rosters because player options were so much more restricted. It makes sense that we’ve continued to attempt to lean on it for as long as possible, especially in a program that benefits from repetition, continuity of team members, and experience. But, I expect and hope that this offseason is the call to adjustment and a shift in philosophy.

Now, all of the above being said, redshirting is still a tool that you could use for lower rated recruits who you could invest in to develop but who wouldn’t represent as big of an impact or loss if they were to leave. The Francisco Caffaro’s and Marco Anthony’s, for example. That being said, with the transfer portal as it is, I’m not sure you want to take too many of these recruits anymore to begin with. More on that to come in Part 2…

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