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Virginia Basketball impresses in opening week

The good, the bad, and what to watch for From the Rafters after a week of play

NCAA Basketball: St. Francis-NY at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia was absolutely dominant in last week’s wins, taking down UNC Greensboro 76-51 on Friday night and following that up with a demolition of St. Francis Brooklyn 72-32 on Tuesday. The defense was spectacular holding both teams to long stretches without scoring. It’s what we’ve come to expect from the Hoos. Let’s take a look back at the good and the bad, as well as a look ahead at the week to come...From the Rafters.

The Good

  1. Darius Thompson gets the start - Coming into the year, when asked who would be the starters and who might fill the void left by Malcolm Brogdon, the general consensus was that Devon Hall and Marial Shayok would be first in line. So it was a surprise to many when Darius Thompson joined Hall and London Perrantes in the starting lineup against UNC Greensboro (and again against St. Francis Brooklyn). From the jump, Thompson didn’t disappoint. Four minutes into the game Thompson hit two threes and had a steal on his way to a 12 point night. And against St. Francis Brooklyn, he filled out the rest of the stat sheet with six rebounds and three assists to go along with four points. The first assist was a sweet cross court pass to Perrantes that resulted in a lay up on Virginia’s first possession of the game. Through only two games, and knowing the Bennett likes to tinker with the lineup, Thompson is probably Virginia’s most electric athlete: he’s a tenacious defender, and if he can shoot the way he did in the opener, he might just settle into that starting two-guard spot.
  2. This team has ridiculous depth - Against UNC Greensboro, Virginia had eight players log double digit minutes. Against St. Francis Brooklyn that number increased to 11. On top of that, in the two games combined, nine Cavaliers scored at least seven points, with five reaching double-figures. The Hoos have no shortage of scorers. For all of those worried about how Virginia would replace Brogdon, Anthony Gill, and Mike Tobey’s offensive production, after two games at least, I’d say, no problem.
  3. Freshmen shine - Outside of replacing an All-Everything player in Brogdon, the biggest question mark coming into the year centered around the freshmen class. On paper it’s the best class that Tony Bennett has assembled at Virginia and signals a bright future ahead in Charlottesville. But what about now? Friday night Kyle Guy started the season strong scoring seven points, including 1-1 from three, and adding three assists in 19 minutes. The game wasn't all roses though as he did pick three fouls showing he may not be comfortable in the defense. Guy followed that up with a five point, two assist night against St. Francis where I was impressed with his ability to drive the lane, stop, and hit a mid-range jumper. In all, he showed the hype is real, and he should compete for minutes right away. Then on Tuesday Mamadi Diakite made his season debut and wow, am I excited. On the night he finished with eight points, four rebounds, and one block in 14 minutes of work. He did some things a man of his size shouldn’t be able to do, highlighted by a pump fake, baseline, reverse slam. He too had a bit of trouble with fouls, but like Guy, will be hard to keep off the court. In a less noticeable role, Ty Jerome played a combined 19 minutes in the two games. While he didn’t light up the stat sheet, he was steady in running the offense, and given his injury last year, it was welcome sight seeing him out there.

The Bad

  1. Could this team have too much depth? - Everything written above about Virginia’s depth and quality of scorers is true. And Bennett recognized that depth Tuesday night when he said “I think this is more of a balanced scoring team, and I like that.” But, what happens when this team needs a big-time bucket? What happens when they need someone to carry them on their shoulders and go out and win a game? I’m not sure balance is the best recipe for success in those cases. Furthermore, depth could lead to sub-optimization. For instance, Jack Salt is primarily a defender. If he is playing more minutes than Jarred Reuter (who has a better offensive game) alongside a strong defender like Austin Nichols, is the team sacrificing too much offense for not enough (or redundant) defensive gain? It made sense to play guys like Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins who were elite defenders alongside elite offensive weapons like Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey. But with better all-around players, you have to wonder if playing a specialist is the best use of minutes.

What to Watch For

  1. Revolving door rotations - Suspensions to Nichols and Diakite gave Salt the opportunity to start. Thompson impressed in his starting role, and Shayok may have been the best Cavalier of the bunch, albeit coming off the bench as the sixth man. Guy appeared to come in the game for Hall, and played most of his minutes alongside Shayok. Salt and Reuter rarely saw the floor at the same time. All of these combinations are part of Bennett’s bag of tricks and never before has coach had so many quality options. I can’t see Bennett playing an eleven-man rotation, but am left to wonder who is left out. In the back court the obvious answer is Jerome. These two games (and likely several more in the non-conference) were invaluable to the team’s point guard of the future. But given that Hall, Thompson, and Guy can all run the point to spell Perrantes, I don’t see Jerome’s minutes going forward. You also have to wonder how minutes will shake out between Hall, Thompson, Guy, and Shayok. Even in a four guard lineup, one of those players is left out (assuming Perrantes is in the game). Then in the front court, Isaiah Wilkins and Nichols should be staples. That leaves Reuter, Salt, and Diakite. At first glance Diakite looks too good to leave out of that mix. Reuter averaged eight points and five rebounds this week and looked solid off the bench. But it was Salt who drew the start, and despite his lack of offensive game, looked very good on the defensive end. It’s only two games and Bennett used most of the non-conference last year to play lots of guys only to settle on a few by mid-January. Until then though, we’ll keep watching and keep guessing.
  2. Yale comes to town - Let’s not kid ourselves about UNC Greensboro and St. Francis Brooklyn. Neither was very good, so what we saw over the last two games should be taken with a grain of salt. Sunday’s matchup with the Yale Bulldogs should tell us a little bit more about where this team is early in the season. The narrative behind Yale is that they were a tournament darling last year taking Duke to the wire in the Round of 32, but lost 4-5 starters to graduation and then lost their only returning starter (and leading scorer), Makai Mason, for the season. That didn’t stop the Bulldogs from going to Seattle and defeating the Washington Huskies 98-90 in overtime. While Washington has talent, they weren’t considered to be one of the better teams in the country this year, but going on the road and beating a PAC-12 team is nothing to sneeze at. It’s a game Virginia should win going away, but crazy things do happen. What we do know is that after two easy games, takeaways about this team are difficult to discern, whereas a game against the Bulldogs will give us a better glimpse of how good this team really is.

Virginia takes on Yale and Grambling State, both at John Paul Jones Arena. Virginia and the Bulldogs tip at 1 P.M. on Sunday, while Grambling State and the Hoos get things going on Tuesday at 7 P.M. Check out all the basketball coverage here at Streaking the Lawn and as always, GO HOOS!