Fresh off of his team’s Emerald Coast Classic championship and ahead of Wednesday’s Big 10/ACC Challenge matchup with Ohio State, Virginia head coach Tony Bennett fielded questions from the media during a teleconference Monday morning. Below is a rundown of some of the topics he addressed during the teleconference.
Responding To Austin Nichols’ Departure
Power forward Austin Nichols was expected to play a large role offensively and defensively for the Cavaliers this season. His dismissal leaves Virginia’s frontcourt with the following: Junior Isaiah Wilkins, redshirt sophomore Jack Salt, sophomore Jarred Reuter, and redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite.
Bennett, who still plans to redshirt true freshman forward Jay Huff, acknowledged that the current rotation of four post players “have to step up.”
From the post standpoint, Nichols’ departure directly impacted Diakite, who was going to see significant minutes regardless but will now play a much bigger role than perhaps was anticipated. He currently leads the team with 13 blocks and is averaging 7.2 points and 3.8 rebounds in 16.2 minutes per game.
From a team standpoint, Nichols’ departure means even more of an all in mentality. This is the “hand we’ve got,” Bennett noted, adding that balance and depth will have to be their strengths.
“I think what gets done will get done together,” Bennett said.
Coach Bennett knows Salt will bring a “ruggedness” and physicality to the team. He credited the redshirt sophomore center with being a “very willing help defender,” a “screener,” and providing maximum effort on the boards.
Salt played in 22 games and had nine starts last season. However, he only averaged 1.7 points and 1.2 rebounds while averaging 6.3 minutes per game. The dismissal of potential All-American post Nichols means the New Zealand native will need to provide a much bigger contribution for the Hoos this season.
Bennett says the “pluses usually outweigh the minuses” in terms of Salt’s performance, but the 6’10” center has “done a nice job” so far according to his coach. Salt, who through six games is just 15 minutes shy of reaching the total number of minutes he played all of last season, is responding well early on to his increased role. He has averaged 5.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game and was instrumental in UVA’s 11-point win over Providence in the Emerald Coast Classic championship, coming through with 8 points, 6 rebounds, and 1 block.
UVA leads the nation in scoring defense, yielding just 41.3 points per game. Utah, which ranks no. 2 in scoring defense, is surrendering 52 points per contest.
The Cavaliers are holding opponents to 30.5% shooting from the field. How has the defense been so good so far this year?
Having rim protectors such as Diakite, Wilkins, and Salt, makes a difference, Bennett noted. Perhaps the biggest factor, though, is the players understand they need to be “as sound as possible” and “make people earn” to be successful.
Ohio State will enter John Paul Jones Arena on November 30 boasting a 6-0 record. Like UVA, the Buckeyes have a win over Providence, defeating the Friars at home by a score of 72-67.
Bennett notes that OSU blends talented returnees from last year with some “good new guys.” Furthermore, this year’s Buckeye squad is “defending harder and better this year” according to Bennett, have players who have experienced success in the Big 10, and are well coached by head coach Thad Matta.
If forward Keita Bates-Diop is able to play (a high ankle sprain has kept him on the sideline for three straight contests), Ohio State will feature four players who started against UVA last season. Led by Jae’Sean Tate and Kam Williams, the Buckeyes boast six players who are averaging double-digit points per game. Freshman center Micah Potter headlines the newcomers.
Virginia defeated Ohio State in Columbus last season, 64-58. The Cavaliers played without point guard London Perrantes in the win.
– Junior guard Darius Thompson averaged 4.3 points per game while averaging 17.5 minutes per contest in 2015/2016. So far this year, Thompson leads the team in points per game with 10. He has made eight 3-pointers, exactly half of what he made all of last year.
A laid-back personality off the court, Thompson “needs to be turned up” on the court according to Bennett. UVA’s head coach says Thompson has been more assertive without forcing this season, and balancing aggressiveness with soundness is something he will need to be throughout the year.
Thompson scored 10 and 11 points in Emerald Coast tourney wins over Iowa and Providence this past weekend.
– Coach Bennett keeps an eye on how his former players are doing in the NBA. Mike Scott (Atlanta), Joe Harris (Brooklyn), Justin Anderson (Dallas), and Malcolm Brogdon (Bucks) all played under Bennett and are now on NBA rosters. Bennett feels center Mike Tobey was close to making the opening day roster for the Charlotte Hornets and believes he could get a call up soon.
Prior to today’s teleconference, Bennett did an interview with the Milwaukee Bucks, who are doing a feature on rookie guard Brogdon.
– Asked if players making the NBA helps the Virginia program, Bennett said it is a positive with recruits but he also loves the fact that those players wanted to be part of building something. They were able to help build the program, and a team’s success draws attention from NBA people according to Bennett.