ACC Preview: Virginia’s Burning Question

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 11th, 2015

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Can Virginia win a third straight ACC Regular Season title?

After back-to-back ACC regular season titles, Virginia enters the 2015-16 season as a consensus top-10 team nationally. More importantly, Tony Bennett’s program has established itself as one that looks like it can sustain serious success going forward for years to come. Using a proven system of tight half court defense and a balanced efficient offense that doesn’t depend much on individual explosiveness, Bennett is now in a position that any coach would envy. Each year Virginia seems to lose a couple of key guys that are replaced with experienced, tough players. Just like that, the Cavaliers’ machine rolls on. This year’s big loss is Justin Anderson, who left a year of eligibility on the table to leave early for the NBA. Anderson’s mid-season broken hand and subsequent appendectomy may have cost Virginia a chance at greatness last season, but at least it gave other Cavaliers more preparation for this year. Before looking ahead, let’s appreciate what Tony Bennett and company have accomplished over the past two seasons. 2Year VaThis two-year run by Virginia ranks as the ninth best (by winning percentage) in ACC regular season history (a 62 year span). In addition to that impressive conference performance, the Cavaliers have now posted back-to-back 30-win seasons, a feat which has been accomplished only seven other times in the ACC. In fact, Virginia is the only school on that list other than perennial league powers Duke (5 times) and North Carolina (2). The core reason for that success has undoubtedly been the Cavaliers’ stingy pack line defense, a philosophy that produced some amazing defensive performances last year. Here are some examples of such efforts, and note that these contests span a period of four months — Virginia’s defense was outstanding throughout the entire season:

  • Nov. 29 – Virginia 45-26 Rutgers (25.0% FG)
  • Dec. 21 – Virginia 76-27 Harvard (16.0% FG)
  • Jan. 22 – Virginia 57-28 Georgia Tech (24.5% FG)
  • Feb. 25 – Virginia 70-34 Wake Forest (21.8% FG) 

Any coach would love to have even one of these performances in a season, but to have four is incredible. The opponents in these games also weren’t scrubs: three of those games were against major-conference foes and the fourth was against a Harvard squad that would take North Carolina to the wire in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Virginia has finished as the nation’s best defensive unit in each of the last two seasons (according to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings) and Bennett’s colleagues have great respect for his defensive coaching chops. In an off-season poll conducted by CBS, nearly 100 Division I head coaches voted Virginia’s head man as college basketball’s best defensive coach, with Bennett earning an impressive 55 percent of the vote.

Malcolm Brogdon can join a select group of 3-time All-ACC First-Teamers. (Getty Images)

Malcolm Brogdon can join a select group of three-time All-ACC First-Teamers. (Getty Images)

Star player and team captain, Malcolm Brogdon returns for his senior year as the ACC’s Co-Preseason Player of the Year. Brogdon is showing up on numerous preseason All-American lists, as well. If he stays healthy and performs as expected, Brogdon should join a select group of players that have been named First-Team All-ACC three times. For the third year in a row, his running mate in the backcourt will be the steady London Perrantes, who boasts an impressive 3.2:1 career assist-to-turnover ratio. Depth on the perimeter will be provided by a trio of sophomores: Marial Shayok, Devon Hall, and Tennessee transfer Darius Thompson.

More experience exists in the Cavaliers’ frontcourt, where three seniors who have combined for 96 career starts at Virginia return. Anthony Gill will be one of the best all-around big men in the ACC. Last year, he led the Cavaliers in rebounding and finishing third in scoring. Gill is also regarded as one of the conference’s best defenders. Seven-footer Mike Tobey has shown nice improvement over his career, particularly defensively and on the boards. He has also been remarkably consistent in scoring, posting progressive season averages of 6.8, 6.4, and 6.9 points per game. Fellow senior Evan Nolte will get first crack at Anderson’s starting spot on the wing, but he can also be used as a stretch-four at times. Each of Bennett’s last two squads featured a key tough-as-nails defender in the post – Akil Mitchell in 2013-14 and Darion Atkins last season. Look for 6’7” sophomore Isaiah Wilkins to step into that role this season. Bennett describes him as “the consummate team guy, very active.” If Bennett needs more of a banger in the paint, he can turn to redshirt freshman Jack Salt or true freshman Jarred Reuter. 

At last month’s ACC Operation Basketball, Bennett noted that, as the two-time defending regular season conference champs, he expects Virginia will get everyone’s “A-game” this year. The ACC media picked the Cavaliers to finish second in the league behind North Carolina — their highest predicted finish of the Bennett era. It’s also worth noting that in each of the past three years, the ACC regular season champ was not predicted by the media in the preseason to finish in the top three. With media expectations higher than they have been in the past, can Virginia again win it all this season? North Carolina may be just as good, but the only scheduled meeting between what easily could be the two best teams in the league will take place February 27 in Charlottesville. But no matter how high they finish in the ACC standings, this Virginia team won’t be satisfied with regular season success. With the program now firmly established, Virginia needs to take the next step and make a deep NCAA tournament run. This season, they may have all the ingredients to do just that.

Brad Jenkins (383 Posts)

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *