ACC Team Previews: Virginia CavaliersPosted by KCarpenter on October 26th, 2012
Throughout the preseason, the ACC microsite will release a preview for each of the 12 teams. Today’s victim: the Virginia Cavaliers.
The past season was excellent for the Virginia Cavaliers. Sure, the team only went 9-7 in the conference and exited the NCAA Tournament in a spectacular flame-out against Florida in its first game. Still, last season was a success for Tony Bennett. The team nearly ran the table in their non-conference slate except for a strange flukish loss to TCU. This impressive run included victories against Michigan, Drexel, Oregon, George Mason, and LSU. In conference play, Virginia was less consistent (though admittedly they played one of the tougher league schedules), with their two best wins coming against North Carolina State and Miami. Mike Scott‘s career year and Bennett’s pack line defensive scheme powered the Cavaliers to one of Virginia’s best seasons in the past few seasons. With Mike Scott now gone, can the Cavaliers match or better their high-water mark?
The Cavaliers are bringing in a small army to bolster their depleted ranks. Teven Jones, Justin Miller and Taylor Barnette represent the incoming guard rotation. All three initially figured to see only back-up and spot minutes with incumbent senior point guard Jontel Evans taking up most of the time at point guard. Unfortunately for Evans, a stress fracture in his foot has the feisty defender and playmaker sidelined for the beginning part of the season. Unless Bennett elects to hand the keys to his team to senior walk-on, Doug Browman, these three freshmen will likely undergo a sudden baptism by fire.
At the wing, the freshman class brings in some potential future starters. Justin Anderson and Evan Nolte both have a nice array of skills, athleticism, and size at the small forward slot, where Virginia had only Paul Jesperson and converted shooting guards before the arrival of these two. If these guys can play defense to the coaching staff’s satisfaction, it’s likely that they will see plenty of minutes, and indeed, potentially a spot in the starting rotation.
The loss of Scott and Assane Sene means that Virginia’s frontcourt is going to be fairly green. While walk-on Chad Kirven will help to fill the ranks, he isn’t expected to see a lot of playing time. At center, however, we have a different story. Mike Tobey is 6’11″ and a four-star recruit. On a team that basically tops out at 6’8″, Tobey offers some serious size and a potential answer to dealing with some of the true centers that Virginia will have to face in conference play. While it’s possible that Tobey may be too raw to contribute immediately for the Wahoos, if he can show anything at all it shouldn’t be too hard for the big man to earn a starting spot.
The core of this team will be the presumptive starting frontcourt of point guard Jontel Evans and shooting guard Joe Harris. Of course, Evans’ injury complicates matters, but as soon as he recovs, these two are the unquestioned starting backcourt. Evans brings excellent playmaking and some of the best perimeter defense in the league despite his small stature, while Harris is one of the most reliable and underrated wings in the ACC. Harris is due for a big year, and the departure of the star big man Scott means that he will likely be one of the primary focuses of the Cavaliers’ offense. Sophomores Malcolm Brogdon and Paul Jesperson return to play on the wing, for whatever that’s worth. The two often struggled to score reliably in their freshmen year, but they know Bennett’s system and will likely see their fair share of rotation minutes. Fellow sophomores Darion Atkins and Akil Mitchell are the incumbent big men though both top out at 6’8″. Mitchell earned a starting spot after Sene was injured and put in strong but not spectacular numbers. More intriguing to fans may be Atkins, who struggled to stay on the floor due to foul trouble, but showed flashes of brilliance on both ends when he found some time on the floor.
Potential Breakout Player
Unsurprisingly, I think Atkins is in for a big year if he can stay on the floor. His 7.3 fouls called per 40 minutes were a major issue during his freshman campaign, but when he was on the floor? Atkins posted the highest offensive efficiency of anyone on the team (including Mike Scott). He posted the highest offensive rebounding rate. He posted the highest block percentage. He had the lowest turnover rate. The tempo-free numbers paint a picture of a highly efficient big man who is a rugged (though perhaps overzealous) defender. If Atkins can put his talents to work for the Bennett system and figure out how to defend without fouling, he could be a monster contributor for Virginia in the coming year. He could also slump under the weight of the increased role, but with a starting spot on the line and no proven star on the front line, Atkins is in an excellent situation to shine.
The NIT Preseason Tipoff has plenty of opportunities for the Wahoos to face quality competition. Michigan, Kansas State, Pittsburgh, and Patriot favorite Lehigh all make up the the top of the field in this preseason tournament. Virginia earned itself a match-up with Wisconsin in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and a game against Tennessee in Charlottesville is a clear non-conference highlight. Their is some fluff in the schedule, but some of the smaller conference teams have the potential to deliver a surprise. All in all, it should be a fairly exciting slate.
In conference action, Virginia has lots of clear advantages and a few challenges. The Cavaliers will play NC State and Duke only one time each and will play both games at home. They will have two games apiece against North Carolina and Florida State, but considering both teams are expected to take a step back from the past year, these games are perhaps less daunting. Two match-ups apiece against likely bottom dwellers Boston College, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech will help Virginia notch some easier conference wins. In total, it looks like Virginia has about as favorable a schedule as any team in the conference.
Conclusion and Prediction
Despite the advantageous schedule, veteran backcourt, and opportunities for breakout players in the frontcourt, make no mistake: This is a rebuilding year. Ironically, however, it seems likely that Virginia could finish with an enterprising 9-9 mark. As far as rebuilding years go, maintaining the same number of conference wins isn’t a bad way to go. It could go a lot worse, but I think the Cavaliers can be counted on to hold the line.