Tony Bennett’s vision for his program is now deeply rooted. Virginia will be one of the nation’s top defensive teams yet again this season, if not the best. But what makes this year’s installment of the Cavaliers so intriguing is the offensive firepower and depth they can call upon to complement Bennett’s famed pack-line defense.
The combination of guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome and small forward De’Andre Hunter gives Virginia the scoring ability to be a contender again, both in the ACC and on the national stage, like it was last season when it entered March as the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Tony Bennett
2017-18 RECORD (ACC): 31-3 (17-1)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to UMBC 74-54 in the first round
G Devon Hall (11.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.1 apg)
F Isaiah Wilkins (6.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
On the wing, the dynamic 6'7", 222-pound Hunter gives the Cavaliers a legitimate NBA prospect, the type of one-on-one talent that Virginia has often lacked. Hunter, the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year last season, is a versatile scorer and defender, and his absence — he missed the NCAA Tournament with a broken wrist — deeply impacted the Cavs in last year’s shocking loss to UMBC.
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Senior center Jack Salt has added a bit more depth to his game each season since redshirting as a true freshman. With forward Isaiah Wilkins lost to graduation, Virginia will be in search of a new anchor for the back of its pack-line defense. Salt is the logical next man up in a lineage of defensive stoppers that includes Akil Mitchell, Darion Atkins, Anthony Gill and Wilkins. Limited offensively, the 6'10", 250-pound New Zealand native can be a force as a rim protector and rebounder.
Redshirting post players has been a big part of Bennett’s program. Junior Mamadi Diakite and sophomore Jay Huff sat out their first seasons and have a chance to be versatile weapons this year. Diakite came on late last season, and Huff, who is coming off shoulder surgery, has the skills to play a stretch-4 position and create matchup problems.
The latest addition to that line will be redshirt freshman Francesco Badocchi, a 6'7" Italian forward who sat out last season.
This group may give Bennett his deepest, tallest frontcourt in years.
Devon Hall was steady and sturdy last season as a senior. When Virginia’s offense bogged down, Hall often took it on his broad shoulders to drive into the lane and get to the rim. This year’s attack figures to look different, with players such as Hunter, Guy and Jerome more capable of driving past defenders.
Guy and Jerome, who have logged serious minutes at guard since they were freshmen, both are long-range shooters, and their reputation for pulling up from well beyond the 3-point arc can draw defenders out on the perimeter to pick them up. That can create room to drive, something both players did with more success last season. The pair combined to average 24.7 points per game and — even in Virginia’s typically low-scoring style — those numbers should go up this year.
Marco Anthony earned valuable experience in some big spots last year as a freshman, and incoming players Kody Stattmann and Kihei Clark were both scorers on the prep level.
Which was the fluke? Virginia’s dominant regular season, ACC Tournament title, 31–3 record and overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament or its stunning first-round loss to UMBC, the first-ever win by a 16-seed? The safe bet is to assume that the larger body of work was more legit. Bennett’s program has dealt with March disappointment before and bounced back. The reality is, with an explosive backcourt, an NBA prospect on the wing and a deep and experienced frontcourt, the Cavaliers should again be among the nation’s elite teams.
Postseason Prediction: Elite 8
ACC Prediction: 3rd