ACC Team Preview: Virginia CavaliersPosted by Lathan Wells on November 5th, 2013
Typically, a rash of transfers is a major indictment of a college basketball program. It can signify instability, a coach who has lost control of his locker room and/or the faith of the young men he coaches, or a program that no longer offers the just desserts most college athletes seek. At the University of Virginia, where head coach Tony Bennett is now in his fourth season at the helm, the opposite appears to be the case. Though Bennett has lost six scholarship players to transfer since 2011, none of the departed left on acrimonious terms. This offseason, Paul Jesperson (who started 33 games last year at guard) and Taylor Barnette left the program for greener pastures, but it wasn’t because of a problem within the confines of the Cavaliers’ program. It was because Bennett finally has the depth and talent he’s been building toward since he arrived in Charlottesville, and there just wasn’t enough playing time to go around. Bennett has indicated his understanding of the depth “quandary“: “Guys being the ninth, 10th or 11th guy and being patient and waiting are harder to come by. It’s not just here. It’s everywhere. It’s more of the immediate gratification of society nowadays. You hate that. […] You want guys to dream of playing professionally, but sometimes that’s not the way it’s going be.”
Last year’s Cavaliers turned in a solid if unspectacular year, winning 23 games and going 11-7 in the ACC. Unfortunately, the team’s lack of a solid non-conference schedule and a poorly-timed late-season swoon in league play cost them a shot at an NCAA Tournament bid. Virginia lost its last three ACC games, the last of which was an unceremonious blowout at the hands of NC State in the ACC Tournament’s first round, and with an RPI bordering on the bubble, they were relegated to participating in the NIT. This year’s team, with the return of proven starters like Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell and an influx of newcomers with promise at the biggest position of need for this team (point guard), has the expectations of exceeding last year’s successes. This is a team bent on gaining entry to, and making noise in, the Big Dance.
Virginia definitely has the veterans and talent to make serious noise even in this, a more difficult ACC. Harris, the conference’s leading returning scorer at 16.3 points per game, has diversified his skill set from his early days as a pure shooter and is a conference Player of the Year candididate. Mitchell became a legitimate post threat last year, averaging roughly 30 minutes a game and adding a nice complement to Harris’ play on the wing. Rising sophomore Justin Anderson, who provided his share of highlight reel plays in the latter half of the season, gives the team an athletic dimension on the wing that nicely complements the physical play Virginia can boast inside. In addition to Mitchell, UVA can count on rising sophomore center Mike Tobey, a participant on the US Under-19 World Championship team that featured Bennett as an assistant, to become a major force in the middle. Throw in wing forward Evan Nolte’s sharpshooting and the rugged play of South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill, and this team’s frontcourt has a lot of versatility and a lot of experience.
Where the newcomers in Charlottesville can really make an impact is in the backcourt. While sophomores Malcolm Brodgon and Teven Jones (each of whom logged starts last season) come into the season battling for the starting point guard role, the Cavaliers suddenly have a glut of talent at a position they shuffled often last year in hope of a spark. Freshmen London Perrantes, a somewhat surprising commitment from California, and Devon Hall have the chance to wrest serious minutes at the point from the incumbents, and one may eventually end up running the show. The Cavaliers are hoping for more scoring and up-tempo offense at times this year, and the newcomers may have an inside track in helping their elders replace the sometimes offensively-challenged Jontel Evans (graduated) at the point guard position.
As previously noted, the Cavaliers’ weak non-conference schedule and low resultant RPI played a large role in being left out of last year’s NCAA Tournament. This year, Bennett tried to take steps to shore up the non-conference contests for his team to ensure they were battle-tested for conference play and had a resume that would help, not hinder, their postseason opportunities. The results were mixed, and this again could be a challenge for the team in gaining some national notoriety. Virginia will meet in-state rival VCU in mid-November, tangle with Wisconsin in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and match up with Tennessee, Davidson and Northern Iowa before entering ACC play. Wins over nationally-ranked VCU and the always-formidable Wisconsin would look very good on a resume, while the other contests are games Virginia needs to win to strengthen that all-important RPI.
Virginia’s style of play is well-known by now: a slow, methodical offense working for the perfect shot, and a smothering defense that keeps scores low and almost always allows the Cavaliers to stay in every game. While in years past it was Virginia’s style that allowed them to compete with the conference elite, now it’s a combination of style and talent level. If the point guard position works itself out, there is already considerable depth in the post, and the team has a legitimate scorer for the waning seconds of close games in Harris. This team has the potential to finish in the upper tier of the conference standings and earn a great seed in the NCAA Tournament if all goes well. If the team drops some head-scratchers early in the year like last season and has difficulty beating the juggernauts in the conference, they will face another stressful Selection Sunday. The former is more likely.