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Previewing UVA basketball’s season opener against NC Central

The ‘Hoos host NC Central and will be hoping to avoid a similar upset to last year’s opening contest versus Navy.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Virginia vs Louisville Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team opens the 2022-2023 season with a contest against the Eagles of NC Central. The Eagles finished last season ranked 280th nationally on KenPom, while Virginia finished 72nd. To start this season, Virginia is ranked fifth while NC Central ranks 255th.

Virginia fans are looking forward to a revamped team, with expectations far higher than last year’s team. This will be our first real view of this team. Last year’s team couldn’t shoot, ranking 247th in three point shooting and, perhaps more importantly, ranking 340th in three point attempts as a percentage of overall shots. Sometimes, the threat of a three pointer is enough to force the defense to make a tough choice, which can lead to open looks inside.

Like every Tony Bennett team, the players have to buy in defensively if they want to see the court. All that shooting from Isaac McNeely, Isaac Traudt, and Ben Vander Plas isn’t going to do any good if it’s sitting on the bench. We’ll finally see if the new guys are truly going to be integrated into the rotation, or if we are just running back last year’s squad.

The Eagles are also a veteran team, with five of the top six in minutes returning. That includes leading scorer Eric Boone. Boone played at two JUCOs and then Georgia Southern. He is in his second year at NCCU. He’s not the only one. Eric Boone (Georgia Southern), Kris Monroe (Providence), Marque Maultsby (New Hampshire), Ja’Darius Harris (Tennessee Martin), Cameron Butler (D2 CSU Dominguez Hills), and Asanti Price (Georgia Tech) are all transfers now in their second year at NCCU.

The top player on the team isn’t a transfer, but is junior Justin Wright. He led the team in scoring, offensive efficiency, three point shooting, and free throws made last season. He’s 6’2” 195 (listed at 6’1” 200 last year), and is one of several similarly sized wings. Monroe (6’8” 225) was the team’s leading rebounder last year by a wide margin and can also shoot the rock (36% from downtown on over four attempts per game). Eric Boone runs the point and led the team in assists, steals and usage rate. Boone isn’t much of a shooter though (just 25% on two attempts per game).

Just by virtue of having played together for a full year, this NC Central team should be improved over last season’s. Last year’s team was small, but they’ve addressed that with a pair of transfers. One is seven-footer Brendan Medley-Bacon (McNeese State), and the other is 6’8” Dan Oladipo (Pittsburgh). Oladipo played 24 minutes over two games against the ‘Hoos in 2022, and scored 10 points on 5/5 shooting with four offensive rebounds.

Rebounding was a problem for the ‘Hoos last year, ranking 209th nationally in defensive rebounding rate. That is, by far, the worst ever for a Tony Bennett team. The previous worst was 50th, which was the 2019 championship team.

This was a particularly notable one, which could’ve cost the team a win. That’s Kody Stattmann there trying to grab a key rebound. On the floor late in overtime of a postseason game were Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman, Armaan Franklin, Kody Stattmann, and Jayden Gardner.

Playing three guards most of the game can leave you vulnerable on the glass. Gardner is undersized for the four, and grossly so at the five (as above). Kadin Shedrick and Francisco Caffaro were both solid on the defensive glass, but they’re rarely on the court together.

Just like with the outside shooting, Virginia has imported some more rebounding. Both Vander Plas and Traudt have size and some rebounding chops and can play the four. Again, we’ll know more about how the rotations play out following this game. Could Vander Plas play some three? That would certainly help on the glass. Could Traudt play the four next to Shedrick? That would as well. Both would also help to stretch the floor.

Last year’s team struggled out of the gate with a home loss to a mediocre Navy team. If Virginia struggles against NC Central, that will certainly temper expectations for this season. But even if they put away the Eagles with ease, we still may not know much about the quality of this team. But we should learn something about the rotations going forward and we should get some knowledge about how the newcomers are going to fare.

For reference, Kyle Guy played 19 minutes in first game on a very good, veteran team in 2017. Ty Jerome played 9 minutes in that game. They aren’t the only ones. Justin Anderson, Devon Hall, Joe Harris, etc. All were getting consistent minutes early in their careers, and many were starting by the end of their freshman campaigns. If Isaac McKneely and company aren’t getting any minutes in November against NC Central, they probably aren’t getting any minutes against UNC in January.

Yes, this is a veteran team. But it just weren’t very good last year, and there isn’t much reason to think the same group would be a whole lot better this year. But the additions to this team are exciting, and seem to provide exactly what last year’s team lacked. Let’s see how it all plays out.