Tomorrow night, the Virginia Cavaliers finally open the new season as they welcome the Towson Tigers to Charlottesville. It’s impossible to avoid the elephant-sized Retriever in the room as the Hoos open against a team from Baltimore County that wear black and yellow. After last year, we all know that anything can happen in a single basketball game, but KenPom gives Virginia a 98% chance of winning. I think we’d all agree that if Virginia and UMBC played another 99 times last year, Virginia wins most of them.
Anyway, on to Towson. The Tigers are the 230th ranked team in the nation, according to KenPom. The last time these two teams played was 2011, with Virginia winning 57-50. That Virginia team wasn’t nearly this good, and that Towson team finished 1-31. So that game isn’t relevant.
Last year’s Towson team wasn’t bad. They finished 18-14, going 9-10 in a solid Colonial Athletic Association. They actually played UMBC and beat them 78-65. They weren’t a particularly big team, with just one starter over 6’5 and two rotation players over 6’7. They were one of the top offensive rebounding teams in the nation, grabbing over 34% of their own misses. They were also one of the better shot blocking teams in the nation. Again, strange for a not particularly big team.
Last year’s Tigers team and this year’s Tigers team are not the same. They return just five out of 13 members of last year’s with the top returning scorer being Jordan McNeil (4.7 points per game, which was 7th on the team). The top rebounder is Dennis Tunstall, who averaged 4.1 rebounds per game (4th on the team). Big man Alex Thomas is the only other returnee. The trio combined for 23% of the team’s minutes, 13% of the scoring and 25% of the rebounds.
Among those who left are transfers Zane Martin (New Mexico) and Justin Gorham (Houston), with five more graduating and freshman Jeffrey Prophete leaving the team in the offseason. There are going to be growing pains for a team that didn’t bring in much in terms of young talent. The only incoming recruit with any national recognition is 6’7 center Solomon Uyaelunmo, a project big man who had offers from Louisville and Georgetown, among others. His brother was a freshman at USC last year and saw mostly garbage time.
To replace all that lost talent, they’ve brought in a number of transfers. One is PG Tobias Howard, a JUCO guy who began his career at Western Kentucky. He’s probably the starting PG, though he’s really more of a combo guard. He’s quick, and he’s a solid shooter, but he’s also a bit reckless and took well over half his shots from downtown. He shot almost 39% from downtown, but just over 40% overall. As a freshman at WKU, he shot just 24% from downtown. He’s giving up quite a bit of size to Ty Jerome, and really isn’t a particularly good defender. Ty should have his way in this one.
There’s another JUCO guy, Brian Fobbs. Fobbs is a 6’4 wing who can shoot (44% from three last year) and just flat out score. He averaged 26 points per game last year for Genessee Community College and was named first team All-NJCAA. He also averaged almost 13 rebounds per game last year, which is insane for a 6’4 wing. Chances are, he won’t be near double figures in rebounds this year. Fobbs is likely going to get the initial job of slowing down DeAndre Hunter. Likewise, Hunter will be tasked with shutting down Fobbs, who is Towson’s most dangerous player right now.
A non-JUCO transfer, forward Nakye Sanders sat out last year after arriving from Duquesne. Sanders, 6’8 225, is a beast on the boards and is a very good shot blocker. He’s athletic and tries to get to every ball. He also averaged almost seven fouls per 40 minutes. In case you forgot, college players only get five fouls before they’re disqualified.
Chances are, those three guys will start. McNeil probably starts on the wing. He’s the leading returning scorer, and he’s a reliable shooter (36% from three last year). McNeil is also a decent wing defender who is 6’5, giving him some extra length when trying to cover Kyle Guy.
That leaves one front court position up for grabs. Alex Thomas started 27 games last year, so he probably has a leg up. Tunstall is a similar player to Sanders, but not really as good. So chances are Thomas gets the starting nod. He’s a bruiser, who can rebound and defend. Sounds a bit like Jack Salt. He’s not much of an offensive player, and shot just 45% from the field last year. Like Sanders, he averaged over six fouls per 40 minutes. Tunstall is going to get some minutes one way or the other because the other guys will be in foul trouble.
Yes, the goal is obviously to win the game. But the real goal is to get into a rhythm and establish an identity. Who is the fifth starter along with Ty, Kyle, DeAndre and Jack? Who is the first guy off the bench? Are Kody Stattmann and Francisco Caffaro both going to redshirt? We’ll get answers to these questions, and more, tomorrow (Nov 6) at 7PM. Tune in on ACC Network Extra (WatchESPN/ESPN3).