Over the past several weeks as the Virginia basketball countdown clock dwindled slowly into single digits, I’ve been asked the same question several times. So how good do you think the Hoos will be this year?
It’s a simple question, but one that tells kind of where the program stands right now. For the first time in a long time, UVA fans don’t have a clear picture of how high to set expectations.
Even last season after the departure of Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Evan Nolte, and Mike Tobey, the Cavaliers’ outlook remained ranked and rightfully lofty. With four-year starter London Perrantes back and Austin Nichols joining the rotation, things looked to keep chugging along for the program so fans had a reasonable pulse on expectations. Nichols, of course, ended up playing in just one game, but the Hoos still earned a top five seed in the NCAA Tournament and won a game there for the fourth straight time.
That’s essentially the baseline for expectations now. Make the tournament comfortably and be a threat to win one game or more each season. That’s no different for this year’s team. The preseason polls have UVA just outside the top 25, but well inside the top 35 nationally. The ACC preseason projections placed the Hoos sixth in the league standings. All of that matches up to a team expected to be in the March Madness field without the concerns of bubble teams.
That’s where the important “how high” part of the equation comes in. Beyond that as the starting point, it’s hard to pinpoint a consensus opinion. Fan outlooks range anywhere from sleeper Final Four and ACC Champion team to a strong team that’s a year away from a serious run beyond the Sweet 16.
The reason for that range – and really the uncertain level of expectations – can be found in the same word: potential. The Hoos have a lot of it. They feature a trio of experienced players in leadership roles and a ton of talent stepping into significant minutes with Perrantes, Marial Shayok, Darius Thompson, and Jarred Reuter no longer with the program.
Overall, the Cavaliers have as much recruiting ranking talent in line for playing time as at any point in the Tony Bennett era to date. The highly successful group of Brogdon, Nolte, Tobey, Gill, and Perrantes plus Justin Anderson landed in the rankings in a range of 49-96; Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins also played alongside those players. This season, Hall, Wilkins, Jack Salt, Nigel Johnson, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Mamadi Diakite, De’Andre Hunter, and Jay Huff figure to play prominent roles in the rotation. While Salt and Johnson did not have rankings out of high school, the range for the other seven players fell from 33-101 in the varying rankings.
Bennett plus talent … well that’s an exciting equation for Virginia fans. And it’s easy to let that math add up into small numbers for the NCAA Tournament. Small as in seed lines and the later rounds with fewer teams playing.
There’s the other side of that potential coin too, though. It’s potential because it’s unproven. It’s seems likely that at least some of those players will rise to the occasion and produce, but questions remain. Will the Hoos find a rhythm defensively? Will they get enough interior scoring to balance the offensive attack? Will what looks like potent 3-point shooting be streaky? How long will it take to gel?
So yes, expectations are hard to pin down for this year’s team.
Interest, however? That’s a totally different story. I think the interest level is as high as ever. UVA fans are intrigued by the possibilities, eager for the journey, and hopeful for the outcome. After watching the likes of Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell, and the many names mentioned above grow together into one of the nation’s elite teams, Virginia fans are invested in seeing this new group find its way too.
The wait is almost over. Tip-off is Friday. Let’s see how expectations ebb and flow as this group’s interesting journey begins.