Earlier this evening, Virginia made a shocking announcement that not only affects the outlook of the Cavaliers season, but that of the entire ACC. Forward Austin Nichols, who sat out last season after transferring from Memphis, has been dismissed from the program. In the announcement, Tony Bennett said, “It’s a privilege to be a part of this program and Austin has lost that privilege. We have standards for our student-athletes and when those standards aren’t met, there are consequences and this is the unfortunate consequence.”
Despite some issues at Memphis, Nichols had (apparently) been a model citizen in Charlottesville during the 2015-16 season while he was practicing with the team. It was a bit of an eyebrow raiser when Nichols was suspended for Virginia’s first game of this year, and there were a few questions asked when he came off the bench in the Cavaliers’ second contest against St. Francis (Brooklyn). Still, nobody expected this to be the next act in this saga.
When Anthony Gill graduated following last season, most in the Virginia program weren’t worried thanks to the presence of Nichols. They felt Nichols could replace Gill by stepping right into the role of an effective scorer on the low block and an elite shot blocker on the defensive end of the floor.
No one player on the roster can solely take over for Nichols so it will take a committee. On the offensive end, Isaiah Wilkins will be asked to be more of a volume scorer. Through two games, Wilkins is shooting 62.5% from the field, and he will now have to be the go-to scorer in the Virginia frontcourt, a role he has never played before. He is much more of an inside-out scorer than a typical back-to-the-basket player, however. That role will likely go to Jarred Reuter, who played sparingly last year but is a favorite of Tony Bennett thanks to his creative back-to-the-basket play. He has averaged 17 minutes per game in the Cavaliers first two contests, and you can expect that to rise in the coming games. Finally, they will need to replace Nichols on the defensive end, which will fall to Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite. Both Salt and Diakite are quite raw with Salt playing limited minutes last season and Diakite redshirting, but both can be effective defenders. Salt is a bruiser at 6’10” and 240 pounds and can be a load to try to keep off the boards. Diakite is smaller at 6’9” and 195 pounds, but Bennett loves his athleticism. He should end up being an excellent shot blocker, but it remains to be seen how he will handle the physicality of the ACC.