Tony Bennett on Gardner and Franklin

CHARLOTTESVILLE – In their free time, Virginia’s veteran basketball players enjoy hitting up downtown thrift shops. They seek threads that fit their unique tastes, from Jayden Gardner’s polished professional look, to Armaan Franklin’s old-school vintage flair, to Kihei Clark’s indescribably unique chic.

“I think everybody has their own type of look,” Franklin said. “Everybody has their different styles when we do that.”

So distinctly individual are the ballers’ preferences in attire, that they can immediately peg what shirt or outfit on a thrift-store rack best suits which teammate.

“We can spot things for each other,” Franklin said. “We can kind of pick out each other’s clothes.”

All different, but in tune with one another.

It’s been the aim on the court for Gardner and Franklin since transferring into the Virginia program before last season – create a cohesive blend capable of getting the Cavaliers to the NCAA tournament.

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In three seasons at East Carolina, Gardner – a Durham, N.C. native – scored 1,462 points, grabbed 705 rebounds and earned first-team all-conference honors in his final year there. In his two years at Indiana, Franklin, who hails from Indianapolis, became a full-time starter as a sophomore, when he knocked down a staggering 42% of his 3-point attempts.

But for all their success, neither reached the NCAA tournament. Virginia, meanwhile, appeared in the Big Dance every season it was held from 2014 to 2021, winning the 2019 national championship. That was one of the biggest reasons Gardner and Franklin transferred to UVa.

“The main reason was to be in the position we’re in now,” Gardner said. “The position to hang a banner. A position to go play in March Madness for the first time. And to play against some of the best players in the world.”

Franklin and Gardner will be among five seniors the program honors at John Paul Jones Arena before Saturday’s home finale against Louisville, when a victory would give UVa a share of the ACC regular-season championship and the No. 2 seed in next week’s conference tournament. At 22-6 overall and 14-5 in the league, UVa is a lock to reach the NCAAs.

Center Francisco Caffaro, guard Chase Coleman and forward Ben Vander Plas, who joined the team this season as a graduate transfer from Ohio, will also be recognized.

Fifth-year senior point guard Kihei Clark, the lone remaining player from the 2019 national championship team, chose not to participate, having already been honored at last season’s final home game, before he decided to return to use his remaining year of eligibility.

Franklin and Caffaro have the option of returning in 2023-24.

Virginia leaned heavily on Franklin and Gardner last season, despite them being new additions. Gardner led the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 15.3 points and 6.4 boards per game. Franklin ranked second in scoring (11.1 ppg) and in steals (35).

“I knew that I had to be a force on offense. We had a lot of guys who hadn’t played a lot of minutes of college basketball,” Gardner said. “We knew they needed us to step up and score the basketball and learn the defensive system. It’s a tough toll but we did, for the most part, what was asked. We tried to do our best.”

Franklin and Gardner said they anticipated having important roles with their new team, and understood, from Day 1, what was needed.

“It was pressure, but it was wanted pressure,” Franklin said. “You want that type of role.”

Early season losses to Navy and James Madison, combined with a buzzer-beater loss to Florida State in Clark’s first senior day game, and a 20-point drubbing by North Carolina in the ACC tournament quarterfinals relegated Virginia to the NIT that year.

Franklin and Gardner said last season’s struggles have made this year’s success more meaningful.

“I think everything’s just been building to this point,” Gardner said. “Last season, we were fighting for our lives, on the bubble, on the line. It’s nice to see the other side and not be fighting and clawing at the end of the season to try to make it.”

Virginia will be back in the NCAA tournament later this month, hoping to make a deep run, the possibility of which drew Franklin and Gardner to Charlottesville in the first place.

They have been roommates since arriving at Virginia. The pair said they tend to keep to themselves and lay low when they’re actually at home, which isn’t often between basketball, school, socializing and, of course, thrift-store shopping. They have formed a strong friendship.

Franklin said he particularly appreciates Gardner’s prowess in the kitchen, especially in the morning.

“His breakfast food is top notch,” Franklin said. “He brought pancake makers and waffle makers and griddles. He’s all in on things like that.”

Now, they’re all in on playing in the NCAA tournament, and looking good doing it.

By Amalia