Before the festivities of ACC Basketball Operation (aka media day) got underway in Charlotte on Tuesday, Virginia head coach Tony Bennett joined the ACC Network’s morning show, Packer and Durham.
Host Mark Packer asked Bennett to give him one word to describe the upcoming ACC basketball season.
“Uncertain,” Bennett said after a moment.
That’s not only applicable to the conference — which, for the first time in awhile, feels wide open — but to Bennett’s Cavaliers, too. Virginia lost a grand total of six players between the 2018-19 National Championship team and the one that showed up on Grounds for the 2019-20 season. De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy were all picked up in the 2019 NBA Draft, going to the Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix Suns, and Sacramento Kings, respectively.
Fifth year senior Jack Salt finally exhausted all of his eligibility, leaving a 6’10, 250 pound sized hole in the roster. Guard Marco Anthony transferred to Utah State, and Frankie Badocchi decided to leave basketball for personal reasons.
After the 2015-16 season, Virginia had high turnover as Mike Tobey, Anthony Gill, Evan Nolte, and Malcolm Brogdon graduated. The Hoos then, however, had a few more “known” personalities returning in 2016-17.
“That team [2016-17] had more experience because you had London [Perrantes], Marial [Shayok], Darius [Thompson], Ty, Kyle, Zay [Isaiah Wilkins]...you go through and there was a lot of perimeter,” Bennett said. “This team isn’t as experienced in the back court. I don’t quite know what to expect, but I’m going in, pursuing the best we can be and seeing where that takes us and not putting any expectations, just like last year.”
Seniors Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key — who represented Virginia in Charlotte on Tuesday — will be heavily relied upon this season from a leadership and scoring standpoint, as will third year Jay Huff (9.4 minutes per game). The fourth big returnee for the Hoos? Second year Kihei Clark, who averaged 26.8 minutes per game, was frequently lumped in to discussions on Tuesday as a senior leader or experienced player.
Clark played in every game for the Cavaliers last season, including after getting wrist surgery. The time he got alongside Jerome and Guy in the backcourt throughout the season not only helped build trust in the first year point guard for the post season, but set him up to take on more responsibility this season. Alongside Clark will be junior college transfer Tomas Woldetensae and first year Casey Morsell, two players that are promising but unknown quantities.
“I know what I wanted to do, and I know the potential we had,” Bennett stated when comparing last year’s team and expectations to this coming season. “This year I’m not as certain, and that’s just being fair and real. I don’t know what our potential is this year. I’m always hopeful, and I’m always really critical as I watch it, but I’m always hopeful. I know that we’re going to need each other a lot because it’s a different deal, and there’s a lot of things coming at these guys.”
It’s not just Virginia that has an uncertain roster, however. For the first time in conference history, no players return from the first or second All-ACC team. The only returning players from the third team? Notre Dame’s John Mooney and preseason ACC Player of the Year favorite Jordan Nwora from Louisville.
Virginia joins Duke, North Carolina, and Louisville as the preseason favorites among the league. When you throw in Florida State, Notre Dame, and NC State, you have some solid competition. While no one team will likely dominate, the gap from top to bottom isn’t as dramatic as in years past.
“This year I think it’s wide open,” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said of the ACC. “It’ll be -- to go to 20 games, and I think the league will be more balanced, and as a result there will be some great basketball throughout.”
Bennett and the Cavaliers will learn a lot quickly as the reigning champs have to take a road trip to face the Syracuse Orange to open the season. “With a new team, against that zone in that setting,” Bennett said of Virginia’s looming trip to the Carrier Dome, “...that’s an uncertain one, so we’ll find out a lot.”
Virginia’s season tips off on November 6 at 9pm on the ACC Network.