Virginia Prepares For Challenges Ahead After National Title Run

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Virginia opens the season at Syracuse.
Tony Bennett will put together a team with a different look after several players left Virginia following the National Championship run. ~ Kris Wright

When the Virginia basketball program arrived at ACC Operation Basketball a year ago, it did so as the only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This October a year later, the Cavaliers arrived as the reigning National Champions.

UVA coach Tony Bennett said both experiences provided learning opportunities and require similar treatment. Focusing too hard on the highs or lows of the previous season can be a trap for the new year ahead.

“I’m very thankful for what transpired,” Bennett said. “I think it’s been a process, and just like after the 2018 season, it was an amazing year and obviously a hardening from a basketball standpoint, but we grew from it. We didn’t hide from it. We addressed it. But we didn’t obsess about it, and I think the same holds true with this last year. We’re very thankful for it. We’ll grow from it. We celebrated it and have enjoyed it, but we won’t obsess about it, nor will we just sweep it under the rug and say that was then. I think you don’t overdo either of them, and you learn from them and you’re thankful for what both extremes teach you.”

Virginia will need that perspective for the challenges ahead in the 2019-2020 season.

First, the Hoos must deal with personnel changes. The Hoos lost three NBA Draft picks in Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome as well as senior captain Jack Salt from the rotation during its National Championship season. Reserve Marco Anthony transferred too. The Sacramento Kings took Guy in the second round, while Hunter went in the top 10 to the Atlanta Hawks and Jerome followed him in the first round to end up with the Phoenix Suns.

Virginia does have several key contributors back, including Kihei Clark and Mamadi Diakite from the starting lineup for most of the NCAA Tournament run. Braxton Key and Jay Huff return as well with two years or more of college playing time under their belts. Clark and Diakite combined for one of the most memorable plays in tourney history with a buzzer-beater in the Elite Eight against Purdue that forced overtime. Key played a huge role in the National Championship Game win against Texas Tech, including a blocked shot at the end of regulation that helped force overtime.

In other words, there’s some experience back to help offset the loss of pro-level talent but it will take some time for this year’s team to put its pieces together most effectively.

“There is a lot being lost,” Bennett said. “You can’t deny how good Dre and Ty and Kyle were, and Jack Salt. He was significant. So rebuilding, starting a new cycle, however, the beauty of college basketball is you can be good with inexperienced guys and enough experience, and that’s the challenge before us. We’ve just got to keep trying to figure out how we can be at our best with how we play offensively, defensively. There will be some growing pains. I know that. We’ve already experienced that in practice, and I’ve been on these guys pretty hard and pushing them. But I’m grateful for them because they got a lot on their plate. We do. But I think we’ve been through a lot. So we’ll just – we’ll be as good as we can, and we know not to worry about it. We talked about it last year, let’s get as ready as we can and run not to the finish line, [but] to the starting line. Let’s be as good as we can at the start and be process oriented. That’s the way for our program and for players and I think team. So that’s what we’ll do.”

In addition to the roster turnover, UVA faces an early start to the conference season as well. The Cavaliers open their season on the road at Syracuse in a Wednesday night game on Nov. 6. They also take on North Carolina before the exam break with a game set for the first full weekend in December.

The season-opening conference game comes in conjunction with the launch of the ACC Network this year, but ACC games before the New Year would be on the menu anyway. That’s because the league expanded to 20 league games so the majority of the regular season schedule comes against teams in the ACC.

It’s all something the entire conference will be adjusting to this season.

“It’s exciting – 20 games for the conference, I think it’s big,” Key said. “It’s great for the fans, great for the players. We love the competition in the conference. Syracuse is a great team, great coach, has had a lot of great success. And opening up at the Carrier Dome, it’s one of my favorite places to play. It’s massive. Last year we played there, and we got really hot, so hopefully we can keep that streak, and it’ll be a great match-up November 6.”

It remains to be seen if the season-opening conference games will carry forward to future schedules. The ACC decided to go that route this year with the new network in place and then re-evaluate the schedules after that trial run occurs. ACC Commissioner John Swofford said Tuesday that the in-conference start to the season is “terrific” for this year.

“We’re going to go through it this year and talk about it and then make some decisions going forward. But I’m excited about it. I think that it will grab basketball fans of the ACC and of the nation right out of the chute so to speak,” Swofford said. “I’ve said that I think that basketball needed some kind of – something nationally to tip off the year. Football pretty much has that. I think with the huge success of the College Football Playoff, I think that’s had an impact on the basketball regular season. So I think it’s more and more important to start the basketball season in a way that it deserves and that really grabs fans’ attention.”

“So we’re really excited about tipping off the year in that way with conference games. And obviously it’s outstanding in terms of the ACC Network,” he continued. “And that was the stimulant but that may also become the norm. We just don’t know. … We’ll experience it and then talk about it and then move forward from there. But I think it’s terrific, particularly in the first year of the network.”

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