Depending on which side of the debate you were on, Virginia was either bad for college basketball last season, or, like Wisconsin, an example of old-school cool.
With their deliberate style of play and stifling defense, the Cavaliers aren’t for everyone. But they make no apologies for their pace, and it’s hard to argue with the results — consecutive 30-win seasons and ACC regular-season titles, and 15 games last season in which an opponent was held under 50 points.
In a one-and-done era, Virginia is a throwback, with players often sticking around four and even five years. Such maturity has been a key to the program’s success, coach Tony Bennett believes.
If so, the Cavaliers are positioned to be a pain to play once again this year. Even with swingman Justin Anderson becoming the rare Virginia player to leave early for the NBA, the Cavaliers are as experienced a team as you’re likely to find these days.
So critics take heed: Virginia is not going away anytime soon, and the Cavs could be even better this year.
All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
In the continuation of a recent trend, forward Darion Atkins was the latest Virginia big man to have a breakthrough senior season last year. With Atkins gone, it is center Mike Tobey’s turn to make the most of his last go-round. A gifted offensive player, the 6'11" senior has lacked consistency. “Mike has given us flashes,” Bennett says. “There’s nothing like knowing this is your last year.”
There’s nothing like having a fifth-year senior, either, and Virginia has such a player in forward Anthony Gill, a third-team All-ACC selection who stepped up his offensive production when Anderson was hurt last year. Gill has also become a hard-nosed defender. He and Tobey give the Cavaliers a major presence around the rim at both ends.
Potentially providing spark on the perimeter is senior Evan Nolte, who has had a hot-and-cold career but is being encouraged by teammates to let shots fly. Jack Salt, who redshirted last season, and sophomore Isaiah Wilkins are waiting their turn in the Virginia way but can provide depth.
No. 3 Virginia Facts & Figures
Last season: 30-4, 16-2 ACC
Postseason: Second round
Consecutive NCAAs: 2
ACC Projection: Third
Postseason projection: Elite Eight
A complete package on and off the court, senior Malcolm Brogdon passed on the NBA to finish a master’s degree in public policy and play on the U.S. Pan Am Games team in the summer. He’s one of the top returning players in the country, an All-ACC pick and second-team All-American last year.
“We’re looking for him to make little improvements, and be even more efficient,” Bennett says.
Point guard London Perrantes has played with poise beyond his years for two seasons. As Perrantes transitions to being an upperclassman, Bennett is looking for more from his junior point guard, whose shooting percentage dipped last season.
“He’s got such a good feel for the game,” Bennett says. “It’s a matter of knowing what the team needs; being a little more assertive in his role and more assertive offensively if that’s required.”
Depth won’t be an issue. Point guard Devon Hall got his feet wet last year after a redshirt season. So did wing Marial Shayok, who was the only freshman to play in all 34 games last year.
Then there’s Tennessee transfer Darius Thompson, who sat out last season. The bottom line is that Virginia has no shortage of options both on and off the ball.
Key Losses: G Justin Anderson, F Darion Atkins
Top Players: G London Perrantes, G Malcolm Brogdon, F Evan Nolte, F Anthony Gill, C Mike Tobey
Not many programs redshirt these days. The latest to take a developmental year at Virginia is Jack Salt, a 6'11", 235-pound New Zealander who made big strides, Tony Bennett says. He and freshman Jarred Reuter could immediately be Virginia’s most physical players. Combo guard Darius Thompson, a transfer from Tennessee, started 10 games for the Volunteers in 2013-14.
After going unbeaten until the final day of January and rising to No. 2 in the polls, Virginia was left with a bad taste last year following a Round of 32 NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan State.
A veteran team enters the season with a palpable sense of unfinished business and Bennett pointing to one of the five pillars of his program — Thankfulness — as a key. It relates to the wisdom gained from failure, and how it’s applied. “If we’re really thankful for what that taught us, we’ll use that to grow, get better and be as good as we can be,” Bennett says.
That could be very good indeed. With a firm identity and style of play, Virginia has been building toward a breakthrough season.
“We obviously haven’t won a national championship or been to the Final Four yet,” Bennett says. “But we’re knocking on the door. We’re improved.”