Yesterday, we kicked off THE BIG COUNTDOWN with a look at the State of the Program. Today, we asked our staff about preseason expectations for the Cavaliers as Virginia heads into their first season after winning a National Championship. Virginia opens the season with a November 6 road test at Syracuse after a lot of personnel turnover. So we asked the staff:
What are your expectations for THIS season? Who will be the most important player?
Pierce: With all the obvious turnover, I don’t know that I’ll have any idea of what to expect until a few games into the season. They start on the road at Syracuse, so that’s a bit of an unfair benchmark for a team that will be relying a lot on brand new players - though maybe the Hoos will hit 50 3s again in the Dome and be well on their way to another top seed. Maybe the team will struggle to find an offensive identity to replace last year’s juggernaut of efficiency and lose enough games to find themselves on the bubble. I bet the answer is somewhere in between: playing enough awesome defense and finding enough good shooting (and perhaps relying majorly on points in the paint from Mamadi and Huff) to battle for a top 4 finish in the ACC. Casey Morsell is my most important player, because someone will have to produce on the wing to let Mamadi, Key, and Huff (?!!!!?) lead the team.
Tiki: Obviously, expectations are lower. This team is vastly different. There’s likely going to be more of an interior focus, because most of the experienced players are in the frontcourt. It’s also likely to be a (gasp!) more defense-minded team, because all the offensive firepower is gone. Tony is too good a coach, and the talent level is too high, for the team to fall off completely. I expect them to still compete for an ACC regular season title and a top-4 NCAA seed. My most important player is Kihei. He’s the only experienced backcourt player and with Ty gone, Clark has to run the offense. His ability to do that and also make some shots is the biggest question mark going into the season.
Danny: Coming off of a title and losing three players to the NBA, the expectations should be tempered a bit. The team is playing with house money and can do no wrong for years in my opinion. That being said, with Tony Bennett as the coach, the expectations should still be a ranked team throughout the year and near the top of the ACC standings. I fully expect this team will still win some big games, host GameDay, and be a #3-4 seed in the NCAA Tourney. The most important player will be Diakite. He has the most experience, leadership, and opportunity to improve his future of any player on the team. Huff, Clark, and Key will be sneaky important at times, but Diakite has the most on his plate. If the Diakite who averaged 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 blocks during the NCAA tournament shows up for the entire season, the Hoos will be set.
Paul: My answer to the “expectations” question for football was, “Ask me again at the end of September.” (Spoiler alert: I expect a lot now.) I’m going to follow the same vein for basketball: Ask me again at the end of December. I am definitely still coasting on the high from Minneapolis, and during the early season will respond to any loss by rubbing my pair of UVA NATIONAL CHAMPIONS socks, hugging my UVA NATIONAL CHAMPIONS shirts, and watching UVA NATIONAL CHAMPIONS YouTube videos. I think the pieces are there for this to be a top-15 team, but it will require all of those pieces gelling just right—as well as several of those pieces taking big developmental jumps. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this squad pick up an out-of-conference loss or two—Purdue’s revenge game, maybe that South Carolina tilt—and struggle in the pre-January conference games at Syracuse and against North Carolina. I’ll set my expectations for the season before ACC play starts in earnest.
I’m gonna cheat on the second half of the question and pick a most important team trait instead of single player, because it applies across multiple guys as the determinative factor this year: Perimeter shooting. If Kihei can shoot as well as he distributes, and Woldetensae’s hand has healed to let him be the dead-eye he was in JUCO, and Key finds his outside shot, well then this is a team that could stay in the uppermost echelon well into March or April. But if the only three-point shooting this team gets is what we saw last year from the returners, then it’ll be a struggle. Not likely a total disaster, but more boom-or-bust, feast-or-famine based on streaky outside accuracy. Hopefully Tony—and Noah’s Arc—have worked their magic in the offseason.
Will: It me, resident of Columbia, South Carolina, and I swear to God if you just willed a loss to UofSC (look it up) into the ether, I will end you.
As for my answer. Losing three players early to the NBA draft would negatively effect 99% of college basketball programs and no matter how good of a coach Tony Bennett is, this team will take a step back. Granted, I pretty much think that ever year and I remain baffled at his ability to get a 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Sports are the worst and drag me down constantly, so I don’t want to get my hopes up too much, so I think they have a solid year, finish in the top 5 of the ACC, get a 4 seed in the NCAA tournament before losing in the Sweet 16.The most important player is the same most important player for the last 3 years and most important player in the history of the program: Jay Huff. Let the man cook, dammit.
Sayer: As noted, this team doesn’t have nearly the same talent it did a year ago in their championship run. That’s what happens when you lose three players to the NBA. And yet, I think this season can still be a memorable one.
For one, Mamadi Diakite, who will be UVA’s star in 2019-20, has the opportunity to flourish during his final year in the orange and blue. Coming off of an impressive NCAA Tournament run, the redshirt senior has a chance to become a force in the ACC. If that’s the case, look for him to sky up NBA Draft charts, and give Tony Bennett a third straight year with a player getting selected in June.
Speaking of Bennett, I believe the upcoming season provides an opportunity for him to cement his case as the nation’s best coach. Of course, after years of coming up short in March, the Virginia head man finally helped lead a team to the Final Four and an eventual NCAA title. Now, though, he’ll have to try to return to that stage without the three-headed monster of De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy. I’m not sure UVA gets that far this time around, but another strong ACC run and Sweet Sixteen or even Elite Eight should be a realistic goal.
What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below!