College basketball season is creeping up fast, and Athlon Sports is counting down to Midnight Madness and the start of practice on Oct. 17.
No. 16 Virginia enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2013-14, sweeping the ACC regular season and tournament titles for the first time in school history. Star guard Joe Harris is gone, but coach Tony Bennett has built a program to last around Malcolm Brogdon and more.
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Virginia arrived on the national scene last season, very much at its own measured pace. After four years of incremental progress under Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers broke through the program’s longtime ceiling, winning the ACC regular-season title outright for the first time in 33 years, the conference tourney for the first time in 38 and advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time since 1995.
It was validation of Bennett’s methodical approach, both on and off the court, and he was rewarded with a contract extension through 2021. It further solidifies him as a long-haul sort of guy, who never wavered from his principles, despite multiple player defections and criticism that Virginia’s deliberate style of play is not exciting.
“You have a vision when you take the job,” he told Virginiasports.com. “You kind of have a plan in place. You hope that if things progress or go as you envision, you’ll have a chance to touch those special things: conference championships, tournament championships, deep runs in the NCAA Tournament, ultimately a chance at a national championship. That’s always the ultimate goal. But until you get close to it and knock on the door to it, you always wonder, ‘Can we?’ But (2013-14) just validates that it is possible.”
Indeed, with three starters and seven of its top nine scorers back, Virginia should be in the hunt in the ACC once again. Bennett must replace sharp-shooting Joe Harris and the dependable Akil Mitchell, but there’s no shortage of depth and talent in a program that has established a firm identity and looks to be on solid footing for years to come.
No. 16 Virginia Facts & Figures
Last season: 30-7, 16-2 ACC
Postseason: NCAA Sweet 16
Consecutive NCAAs: 1
Coach: Tony Bennett (106-60 overall, 48-36 ACC)
ACC Projection: Fourth
Postseason Projection: NCAA Sweet 16
Even with graduation of Mitchell, a stalwart defender and rebounder who epitomized Virginia’s team-first approach, the Cavaliers have size, depth and experience up front.
The man in the middle is 6-11 Mike Tobey, who has shown flashes of ability as a low-post scorer and will be counted on for more consistency now that he’s an upperclassman.
“When you go from being an underclassman to an upperclassman, now you’re without excuse, we like to say,” Bennett says.
Also in that category is junior Anthony Gill, who provided a shot of physicality and aggressiveness off the bench last season. Gill, who began his career at South Carolina, should move into the starting lineup. A versatile scorer, he’ll be able to show more of the skills that he demonstrated while averaging 12.7 points in the ACC Tournament.
Darion Atkins, who was lost in the shuffle at times last year, should get more playing time, particularly if he can do some of the dirty work Mitchell was so good at. Evan Nolte is a perimeter sniper. For freshmen Jack Salt and Isaiah Wilkins and Marial Shayok, playing time will depend on their ability to pick up Bennett’s non-negotiable defensive principles.
No one puts up eye-popping numbers in Virginia’s share-the-wealth system, and that is the primary reason Malcolm Brogdon failed to earn All-ACC numbers. Make no mistake, though, the versatile guard was the most valuable player on the league’s best team. He’s also making the turn from underclassman to veteran, and should be one of the conference’s top performers.
Point guard London Perrantes was a freshman find. Teammates dubbed the Los Angeles product “Cali Swag” for his cool, steady floor generalship. Justin Anderson, voted the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year, is capable of getting up and down with the best of them when Virginia lets its hair down in transition. Devon Hall, coming off a redshirt season, should be ready to back up Perrantes.
As in the frontcourt, Virginia is loaded.
The bar has been raised at Virginia. Winning the ACC, earning a No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and taking Michigan State to the brink in a Sweet 16 game has changed perceptions of what’s possible, and not just for fans.
Last year proved that if things go well, big goals are “not as far away as you think,” Bennett says.
Bennett’s system remains an acquired taste. The Cavaliers make the extra pass — or three — and they played at the nation’s sixth-slowest tempo last season. The selflessness and commitment to defense that Bennett requires of players is not for everybody.
It’s hard to argue with the results, though, and last year’s success has only left players and fans wanting more.
The Cavaliers may not have the ACC’s top class, but they might have its most pedigreed. Isaiah Wilkins, the Gatorade Player of the Year in Georgia, is the son of Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins. Guard B.J. Stith is the son of Bryant Stith, who is Virginia’s all-time leading scorer and played 10 years in the NBA. Jack Salt brings a reputation for physical play. Marial Shayok originally signed with Marquette.