Virginia Basketball held their media day yesterday (Monday), and head coach Tony Bennett will have the opportunity to show his coaching chops this season. For the first time under his tenure in Charlottesville, Coach Bennett has no returning players who averaged double digit scoring in the previous season. London Perrantes was Virginia’s lone double digit scorer last season, averaging 12.7 per game. Marial Shayok, who finished second in scoring with 8.9 points per game, transferred to Iowa State in the off season.
“There is uncertainty.” Bennett said of his 2017-18 squad. “We’re going to need some of those guys who got experience in their first year to be thrown into bigger roles. And even guys that haven’t played before are going to have those opportunities.”
Virginia will need a lot out of second years Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and Mamadi Diakite, as well as production from heralded redshirt first years Jay Huff and DeAndre Hunter.
“But that core group of those five freshmen or first years … they’re important in this process when you start talking about Mamadi, Ty, Kyle, DeAndre and Jay...” Bennett stated. “Those guys that got game experience, that was important for them last year. They’re going to have to step up into, not stretch themselves, but just they’re going to be called upon more, which is going to be great for them, because that group has a nice core, and if they stay together they’re going to be good. Uncertainty, but exciting.”
The Hoos aren’t without experience, however. Fifth year Devon Hall is the heart and soul of this team, and fourth year Isaiah Wilkins and red shirt third year Jack Salt have put their time in for Bennett.
“They’ve been terrific.” Bennett said of his experienced trio. “I usually don’t make a big deal out of this but this year I did. I named three captains to start. Usually we kind of just let it happen organically...but this year I wanted to because Isaiah’s a natural leader, Devon’s a natural leader, and so is Jack Salt...These guys have put a lot of time and energy into this program and they’ve been through so many experiences and you see them, as the culture was established a long time ago, taking the young guys, explaining things, trying to hold guys accountable.”
In addition to Hall, Wilkins, and Salt, the Hoos get Nigel Johnson, a graduate transfer from Rutgers. Although Johnson is new to Charlottesville, he’s definitely not new to the level of basketball, and that experience will be invaluable at the point. Johnson averaged 11.3 points per game for Rutgers his senior year and will bring a good defender and versatile guard to the lineup for the Hoos.
Virginia is flying under the radar this season and is at risk of being left out of the AP Poll for the first time in 63 straight polls, something that fans may feel a little heartburn over. The team, however, isn’t too concerned.
“I don’t think there’s much pressure,” Jerome commented. “We do a great job, our coaching staff leads us, and directs us where we don’t pay much attention to the media or outside world. We’re focused, we’re locked in to each other and getting better every day.”
“We don’t have the returners coming back the guys that we’ve been fortunate to have in years past with that experience that’s proven, so we gotta earn it.” Bennett said. “You guys always hear me - I feel like a broken record - you’re never that far away from being really good and being below that line so I think that there’s always optimism and hope. I think the guys again are excited about it, a lot new opportunities there and playing time opportunities with who we have.”
The Hoos will have a couple games to start the season to play with lineups and get some experience, but a matchup with a talented and defensively disruptive West Virginia looms in game three.
While fans know what to expect defensively from year to year with a Bennett led team, the Hoos have questions to answer offensively after ending their season in the second round of the NCAA tournament with a loss to Florida in which UVA only scored 39 points.
“It was a tough, tough way to go out” Salt said. “We got smacked, but we’ve been working on our offense, working on getting it more fine-tuned...we’re just working on everything, trying to get better each practice.”
Salt has spent the summer working on finishing around the rim, and Coach Bennett knows that getting the ball inside will have to be a point of emphasis this year, as well as the team’s ability to get to the free throw line.
“Of course, offensively...if we can get to the line more, if we can score inside more, if there are any opportunities in transition...” Bennett stated. “Last year, we became so reliant on how we shot, when we felt like we didn’t have an inside presence when Austin Nichols wasn’t a part of it. We had certainly time to adjust, we didn’t, even if we weren’t terrific in interior scoring, we probably needed to find ways to go inside more and trust those guys -- Jack, Isaiah, Mamadi, and Jay.”
Another positive as far as the front court goes is the improved health of Wilkins and Salt. Wilkins struggled with an undisclosed illness over the last third of the season, while Salt battled through a painful back injury. Having that duo - who will most like be the two starting big men - at full strength is a big win for Bennett and the Hoos.
“We’re just excited.” Salt said. “Got a new group of guys who haven’t played before so there’s definitely a lot of excitement, but we’re ready to put more work in throughout the season.”
Media Day Quick Hits
-Virginia is putting in a new video board and that bad boy is HUGE.
-Kyle Guy’s mom is 100% on board with the shorter, no-bun haircut. “Much, much happier,” he said. “Two thumbs up from her.”
As a whole, the team has very subdued haircuts and facial hair compared to the last couple seasons. What will the chants be towards Guy now?
-Who does Jay Huff model his game after? Frank Kaminsky, Kevin Durant, and Dirk Nowitzki, or as he says, “...tall guys that can move and shoot.” Yes, please.
-Even though the UVA Football defense is top-ten in the country in a handful of categories, Micah Kiser says they know they’re not top defensive dogs in Charlottesville.
“No, I think right now the basketball team and Coach Bennett, what they’re doing, that culture’s established. They’re going to play defense. Right now we’re just getting started. That’s what Coach Mendenhall is known for, but that’s not really what we are know for yet here at UVA football. So we’re just trying to do that. We’re not getting too cocky or trying to call out anybody like that.”