Despite the fact that it lost two starters in Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, a key reserve in Mike Tobey, and a significant role player in Evan Nolte, from last year’s team, UVA’s men’s basketball program enters the 2016/2017 season with high expectations.
UVA is ranked no. 7 in Athlon Sports’ Preseason Top 25, no. 8 in Lindy’s Sports’ Preseason Top 25, and no. 15 in The Sporting News’ Preseason Top 25. Tony Bennett, who is entering his 8th year as Cavalier head coach (he has a 165-72 record in seven seasons), dismissed the preseason hype.
“I don’t care what the preseason rankings are,” Bennett said during UVA men’s basketball media day on October 17. “That means nothing. I know what we can become, but we’re not there yet.”
Virginia no longer has the steely leadership and all-around brilliance of Brogdon, the 2016 ACC Player of the Year and second round pick of the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2016 NBA Draft. The Cavaliers have to replace the scoring of power forward Anthony Gill, who averaged 13.8 points per game last season, and current Charlotte Hornets center Mike Tobey, who averaged 7.3 points per game last season.
The production will obviously have to be replaced, but so will the experience those three players as well as Nolte possessed. Experience playing the Pack Line. Experience playing and succeeding in big games. These things cannot be replicated immediately. The group helped propel Virginia to national prominence over the past three seasons, winning 89 games with only 19 losses, capturing two ACC regular season championships and one ACC tournament championship, and reaching the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight.
The group will be missed, and who will step up and help fill the void is a question Bennett admitted he is excited to find out the answer to. UVA’s 2016/2017 squad is led by its only senior, point guard London Perrantes, who averaged 11 points per game last season and made the Preseason Watch List for the Bob Cousy Award given to the nation’s top point guard. Two more starters from last year’s group return as well in redshirt junior guard Devon Hall and junior forward Isaiah Wilkins. Junior guard Marial Shayok, redshirt junior guard Darius Thompson have significant experience. To a lesser extent, redshirt sophomore center Jack Salt and sophomore power forward Jarred Reuter do as well.
Virginia also boasts six talented newcomers this season, led by former consensus 5-star prospect Austin Nichols, who sat out last season after transferring from Memphis. The 6’9”, 234-pound junior has big-time potential and is expected to assume a starting role. Mamadi Diakite is an athletic, promising big man who redshirted as a first year last year. And then there is Virginia’s incoming first year class led by McDonald’s All-American guard Kyle Guy. Guy, guard Ty Jerome, wing De’Andre Hunter, and forward/center Jay Huff make up Coach Bennett’s most highly acclaimed recruiting class since he arrived at UVA.
For the experienced returners and the newcomers, there is a need and opportunity to step up and help fill the void of those players that left. The onus isn’t just on one player, Bennett notes, but on several players to improve their contributions.
“In the immediate and now, there’s some big questions to be answered,” Bennett said. “There’s definitely talent and there’s promise, but when you look at what you have to replace, there’s going to be opportunities for a number of guys. We’re going to have to find ways to be good defensively, to score. You don’t just replace those guys. Those are challenges. Real challenges.”
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London Perrantes’ impact at UVA was immediate. As a true freshman starter (he started 33 of 37 games) on the 2013/2014 team, which won ACC regular season and tournament championships, “he just steadied everything,” Bennett said.
While his feel and demeanor are strengths and important to the program, Perrantes has seen his offensive production increase throughout his career. As a freshman he averaged 5.5 points per game. He averaged 6.4 points per contest his second year and took a big leap last season, when he averaged 11 points per game. As Virginia’s top returning scorer from a year ago, Perrantes may be the focus of opposing defenses this season.
Bennett noted that the 6’2” senior has worked more on his offensive game in preparation for possible increased attention from opposing defenses. Defensively, Virginia’s head coach has challenged Perrantes to become better on that side of the court.
Asked how Perrantes looks today compared to when he was a first year, Bennett joked that the senior’s nose looks a little different after breaking it in practice last Saturday. Bennett added that he expects Perrantes to be just fine.
A coach-led team can be good, but a player-led team can be really good or touch greatness
Coach Bennett has spoken the above line to his team. With four leaders gone, who will step up? Of course Perrantes, the team’s lone senior, will be a big part of the player-led leadership. Bennett also mentioned Wilkins, Hall, Salt and Shayok as players with natural leadership and communication abilities.
“It will be a group thing. Without a doubt,” Bennett said.
Nichols Raring To Go
There is no shortage of buzz when it comes to Nichols, whose considerable talents on both ends of the court will be important to the Cavaliers’ success.
“He does some things from a talent standpoint that are terrific and I think he could be an important piece for us this year,” Bennett said. “The redshirt year has improved his body. I think his ability to score, around the lane, off the lane a little bit, is going to be needed for us.”
Bennett noted Nichols’ shot-blocking prowess but intimated that learning the Pack Line remains a work in progress.
“You can’t be a step behind for us to be our best,” Bennett said.
First Year Contributions
Learning the Pack Line, which is a process that takes time and experience, Bennett said, will be an adjustment for the talented group. So will adjusting to the physicality of the college game. The promise is there, though, for this group to have an impact this season.
“Every returner has clearly improved. I can see it. I can’t say that about the first years because I haven’t seen them,” Bennett said. “They’re swimming a little bit right now. The intensity. The volume of work. How we’re trying to be execution oriented and be demanding. There’s a lot of slippage. The promise is there. Physically, none of them are real physically developed. They have to think right now to understand it. I think we’re going to need some help from all of ‘em at some point.”
With a young group, Bennett acknowledges he may have to “encourage a little more” but hopes a tough out-of-conference schedule will prepare the players for the challenge of playing in the ACC.
“You look at our schedule, it’s trying to survive,” Bennett said. “It’s invaluable experience for every guy out there. What a great opportunity to find out where we’re at and prepare us for the ACC.”
“My hope is to keep knocking, keep improving as this progresses,” Bennett said.
Kneel for Injustice. Kneel for Equality. Using our platform to help creat change. TOGETHER! pic.twitter.com/7AEA3mH63B
— London Perrantes (@London_Tyus) September 29, 2016
Unity, one of the five pillars Bennett preaches in his program, is what the Cavalier players wanted to express in the above photo. Coach Bennett further discussed this as well as what transpired following the players taking and then tweeting the above photo.
“Once I knew their intentions and we sat down with them, it was positive,” Bennett said. “We had police chief (Al) Thomas come in and the vice mayor, Wes Bellamy. They came in together and talked to our guys. It was just about continuing to educate them. Their desire was all about awareness. There was some positive to it and there obviously were some people who didn’t quite understand and assumed some things, but it was not to disrespect the military, the flag — they’re going to stand in attention of the national anthem. It was just to raise awareness. [Thomas and Bellamy] stood in front of us and said this is bigger than differences. It’s about coming together, respecting people, be educated young men. Do something positive. Live life the right way. It was a positive interaction.”
– True freshman forward Jay Huff, who stands 6’11”, gained 25 pounds of muscle in the offseason. The original thinking was that he was a likely redshirt candidate, but don’t be surprised to see him on the court this year. In addition to the increased weight, Huff gives UVA a big who can stretch the floor and block shots. Bennett noted that Huff has shown the ability to knock down 3s in practice.
– No redshirt decisions have been made. With any redshirt decision, Bennett gives his opinion and leaves it up to the player and his family. Bennett notes that the two preseason scrimmages will be important in influencing his thinking on who will be able to contribute this season.
– Injury news: Perrantes has a broken nose. Jack Salt is nursing a hamstring injury and “hasn’t been able to practice as much as we’d like.” Freshman De’Andre Hunter said he sprained his ankle recently. Freshman Ty Jerome had double hip surgery in February. He has been playing (he played in Spain), but the staff is taking a cautious approach with him and all of those players with injuries.
– Bennett says Nichols, Diakite, Huff, and Jack Salt all give Virginia a shot-blocking presence in the post.