“Tony Bennett was a very vital factor in me going there,” Gardner told ESPN. “Our relationship is really good and us both being Christians, I feel, helped our bond. He kept it honest and truthful from the beginning with me and let me know the significant need they have for me and touched on what a wonderful opportunity I have to play for him and the University of Virginia in the best conference in college basketball.”
Gardner, a 6-foot-7 forward from North Carolina, has been one of the most productive players in the country the past three years at East Carolina. He averaged 18.3 points and 8.3 rebounds this past season, earning first-team All-American Athletic Conference honors after ranking second in the league in both scoring and rebounding.
As a sophomore, Gardner averaged 19.7 points and 9.2 rebounds for the Pirates, garnering second-team all-league honors. He posted 16.3 points and 8.5 boards as a freshman.
Gardner should provide a huge boost for Virginia, which could lose most of its key pieces from this past season. Jay Huff, Sam Hauser and Tomas Woldetensae are all seniors, while Trey Murphy is a projected NBA draft pick. Casey Morsell, Justin McKoy and Jabri Abdur-Rahim all entered the transfer portal. If Murphy ends up leaving, Kihei Clark (9.5 PPG), Reece Beekman (4.7 PPG), Kadin Shedrick (2.5 PPG) and Francisco Caffaro (1.2 PPG) would be the lone rotation players returning.
However, Gardner is the second immediate impact transfer Bennett has landed. Former Indiana guard Armaan Franklin announced earlier this month he was transferring to Virginia. Franklin, a 6-foot-4 sophomore from Indianapolis, averaged 11.4 points and shot 42.4% for the Hoosiers this past season.