Tony Bennett Talks Nichols, Redshirts, & More On ‘Coach’s Corner’ Finale

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University of Virginia head coach Tony Bennett’s season-ending Coach’s Corner provided an answer to a question that has been lingering for several months. Might Austin Nichols return next season?

“Austin will not be back next year. That’s about as clear as I can be on that,” Bennett said.

Nichols, a consensus 5-star prospect in high school, transferred to Virginia after spending two years at Memphis. He redshirted in 2015/2016 and was expected to give UVA a major post presence offensively and defensively in 2016/2017. Nichols was suspended initially for preseason scrimmages as well as the season opener. After scoring 11 points in 16 minutes of play in a win over St. Francis Brooklyn in UVA’s second game, Nichols was dismissed from the team.

With Nichols out of the picture, Virginia has an extra scholarship at its disposal next season. With the Cavaliers’ season in the books, filling that scholarship is one of Bennett’s top priorities.

“We have one (scholarship) and we’re going to be active and looking at filling that this year,” Bennett said.

Coach Bennett says he is open to all options with respect to filling the spot. That includes high school seniors who have committed to or signed with other programs but get out because of a coaching change, an uncommitted high school senior, a transfer, or a graduate transfer who could help immediately. Bennett expressed mixed emotions on graduate transfers in an earlier Coach’s Corner show, but he seemed open to taking one last night.

“It would be good to add,” Bennett said. “You say, ‘Well, what position?’ Well you need to get an interior scorer. Well, you can make that case. Or you need to get someone who can really break it down off the dribble. I think you just try to find the best possible player and you look at what you need. You look at all those options and that’s part of what’s going on right now. Has been before, but as we’re done my attention has gone to that. Let’s start talking about that and go from there.”

Recruiting the class of 2018 is another primary focus of Bennett’s. Currently, the Wahoos have five scholarships available in that class.

“The 2018 Class will be very important,” Bennett said. “We’ve been working hard on that.”

More from Coach Bennett’s March 20 Coach’s Corner

Final Thoughts on the Season

Bennett was proud of how this team handled adversity and the ups and downs this season presented. From losing Nichols to a 4-game losing streak to Isaiah Wilkins’ illness, “these guys accomplished a lot and had to deal with a lot,” Bennett said.

With all that happened this season, Bennett says he “grew to respect” this team.

Losing the way they did to Florida could turn out to be a positive as far as next season is concerned, Bennett says. The loss is certainly a spark toward improving for next year.

The desire to improve, though, “has got to burn red hot,” Bennett said, citing Malcolm Brogdon as one of the most driven players he has ever been around.

“Will all of our returners take that next step in their improvement?” is one of the biggest questions Bennett has heading into the offseason.

As far as Wilkins is concerned, Bennett had no significant update on the rising senior forward’s health. Wilkins told reporters following the Florida game that he will get blood work done this week.

Jay Huff at the 2016 Pepsi Blue-White Scrimmage ~ Photo courtesy of Virginia Athletics Media Relations/VirginiaSports.com

Huff and Hunter

Heralded class of 2016 recruits Jay Huff and De’Andre Hunter redshirted in 2016/2017. Coach Bennett, who acknowledged it was a “challenge” at times to keep those two on the bench this year, previewed what we can expect from those two next season.

“They’re both very talented players,” he said. “They both have a big upside. They both had a redshirt year, although I think there were times they certainly could have helped us. This was good for them and good for everything. They got a lot stronger. They really worked on their game and they’ll still continue to need to develop, but they’re I think going to be an impressive group. I think people will like what they bring. It’s just getting them the experience, how consistent they’ll be.

“Both of them defensively, they’ll continue to learn the system, but both are long,” Bennett continued. “I like what I see in them. Again, it was a good year for them to get stronger. That was the main thing with them.”

Of Huff, Bennett said: “Jay can step out and shoot the 3. He’s seven feet. I don’t think there is anything 6’11” about him. Bouncy guy. Blocks shots. Has gotten stronger. Has a face-up game. Does some good things that will help, and he has good hands and good finishing ability. I think that’s important around the rim when he catches things. His back-to-the-basket game is continuing to evolve. Because he’s not the strongest right now, he’ll shoot different kinds of shots. He’ll shoot in practice some of these Dirk Nowitzki fall away shots. He has the touch.”

“De’Andre is a guy that can get to the rim,” Bennett said of the Philadelphia native. “Long. He’s 6’7” and a bit long. He can slash. He can step out and shoot the 3. He gives you a unique diversity. You can go four guards with him like we did Devon. Actually he can score a little bit in the post. He does bring some nice dynamics.”

Will Attrition Hit UVA?

UVA hasn’t lost a player to transfer since BJ Stith left following the 2014/2015 season. The Cavaliers return 11 scholarship players from this year’s team. There has been speculation that there could be some attrition this offseason, but nothing definitive. Coach Bennett was asked about this last night.

“With as many transfers as there are, that’s always a reality,” Bennett answered. “I genuinely care and love all of my guys. You always at the end of the year take pause, get away from it a little bit, and then you have your meetings, just to talk about the right stuff. I would never beg anybody to stay who has their mind set on leaving and nor would I ever tell anybody to leave if they want to stay. You’ve got to want to be here. They know how they’ve been treated and cared for and pushed and challenged. They know what this is. All you ask for is opportunities. That’s all you can have. One good thing about this year’s team is, every single guy, all 10 – maybe Jarred (Reuter) didn’t have as much of a chance as everybody else — got ample opportunities to play. There was some up-and-down and back-and-forth, which can be frustrating, but they did get opportunities to play and show and do things. I think that’s healthy for everybody. There weren’t as many issues of playing time. The things they’ve got to take in and the things the players hear and their own thought process becomes important, but it’s always got to be desiring to be here and take this program to another level. In that success, other things flow from that.”

ACC Overrated?

The ACC had six schools in the Sweet 16 last season. This year, nine teams from the conference earned NCAA Tourney bids. Only one — UNC — still stands heading into Sweet 16 action.

“I think last year the top of the league was better,” Bennett said. “When I say that, more mature. When you look at Virginia, even Syracuse, they went to a Final 4, Miami, Notre Dame. I even think North Carolina. Duke might be the one team that was perhaps better this year than last year, but there was such maturity in the top of the league. This year I think the top of the league was a little younger and less experienced. I think this year’s ACC, the bottom and the middle of the league really improved, which I think made the league deeper and better in that regard.”

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