Coming off a 23-11 season, expectations for the Virginia Cavaliers are lower for this year’s basketball team than they have been in recent years. However, from returning veterans to the new faces in John Paul Jones this season, I’m bullish on this team, which should be able to compete for an ACC title and beyond. Here’s the good, the bad, and what to watch for in the upcoming campaign.
Most of the storyline surrounding Virginia’s offseason centered on who won’t be around this season. It will be hard to replace London Perrantes, as he's as synonymous with Virginia’s resurgence as Tony Bennett. Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson had solid careers for the Hoos, but they didn’t figure to have a role commensurate with that experience, and we wish them well. But the storyline that should be the focus is on who returns, and it’s for that reason why I am excited about the season.
Lost in the “mass exodus” narrative is the fact that Virginia returns three of five starters from last year’s squad. Isaiah Wilkins, Devon Hall, and Jack Salt all return. Add to that Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and Mamadi Diakite who all saw their roles and minutes significantly increase as the year went along. Not only do the pieces return, but so does the track record of Tony Bennett and his staff of developing players as they grow in their system. In fact, between Hall, Wilkins, Darion Atkins, and Akil Mitchell, none of whom were ever considered stars, each made a significant leap in production when their minutes increased. At one point in each of their careers, they saw a bump in percentage minutes played of at least 21%, and in that corresponding season, their offensive rating increased by at least eight percent, with Wilkins seeing a huge increase of 25%. None of the trio of Jerome, Guy, or Diakite played in more than 45% of minutes a season ago, so all three figure to be in line for a significant bump in action which has proven to translate into more production for Virginia players.
The system works. Players get stronger and their roles more defined. While Hall has already grown as a player, he can still become a star. Jerome and Guy, though only sophomores, can be All-ACC as soon as this season. And Jack Salt, who many have written off as not ACC-caliber, can improve by leaps and bounds. While this team is short on star power, they aren’t short on talent.
It's no secret that Virginia struggled scoring in the low post. No other factor contributed as much to the Cavaliers' "down" year. From the dismissal of Austin Nichols to rawness of of players like Diakite, and add in the health of Wilkins down the stretch, the Hoos just flat out couldn't generate easy baskets down low. It made the Hoos easier to defend as they became reliant on the three-ball. The recipe for a Virginia win was somewhat simple. Hit threes, win. Miss threes, lose. In games Virginia won, they shot 41% from behind the arc, in games they lost that number fell to 33%. Then there were Virginia's lousy performances against UNC and Florida where they shot a combined 3 of 35 from downtown. No matter how well the defense played, there was no overcoming those numbers.
It would be one thing if those were stats of the past, but when looking at this team's makeup, what has changed? Mike Scott and Mike Tobey aren't all of a sudden walking through that door. Wilkins is a nice low post player, but not exactly dominant. Last season, Diakite didn't appear to have the skills or strength to bang down low. And unfortunately, though Salt has become a beast on the defensive end of the floor, that tenacity hasn't exactly translated to offense. Then there is the only newcomer to the front court. Despite being 7'1", Jay Huff is more adept at stretching the floor and connecting from distance. Maybe, given the pieces in place, low-post scoring was a focal point of Virginia's offseason game plan. But I'm not confident we'll see a huge improvement over last year in this regard.
What to Watch
For the first time since the 2010-2011 season, Virginia doesn’t have a go-to best player on the floor. First it was Mike Scott, then Joe Harris followed by Malcolm Brogdon, and finally London Perrantes carried the torch last season. Each of those seasons, there was some level of performance you know you’d get from the teams built around those players. Not this year. There hasn’t been a Virginia team with so many question marks. Notwithstanding, with a high, albeit unproven, ceiling comes a low floor. I’m confident this team can be really good however and exceed the expectations set forth.
That optimism starts with Nigel Johnson. While Ty Jerome was a pleasant surprise last season, it would have been a tall order to hand over the reigns of the team to such an inexperienced player. Enter Johnson who brings a skillset the Hoos haven’t had in a long time: a quick, pass-first point guard who can beat the defense off the dribble, get to the rim, and create for his other teammates. As good as Perrantes was, he played just as well off the ball as he did with it in his hands and Jerome is a similar player. Johnson will allow Jerome and Guy to run free and potentially open up the lane to generate the much needed low-post scoring.
Next comes Huff who, as I mentioned, at 7'1" is unlike any player Virginia has had in recent years. He has a nice stroke from three, and even showed in practice that he can beat his man off the dribble, take what looks like only a step and a half from the three point line, and finish at the rim. Hopefully, his ability will draw the defense out of the paint for either an easy two or he can convert on a jumper of his own. While it remains to be seen if he can contribute on the defensive end (and thus crack the rotation), what he brings on offense sure will open some eyes.
Finally there is Deandre Hunter. At 6'8" some have noted he may one of the most athletic players in recent Virginia history. Like Huff, his minutes will be dictated by how he picks up the pack line defense. He also has a log-jam in front of him at the wing with Hall, Jerome, and Guy all vying for minutes. But in spurts, he could remind people why he was such a highly coveted recruit, and just how deep this bench can be.
The season tips off Friday, November 10th when the Hoos host UNC-Greensboro. We’ll be here at streakingthelawn.com up until tip-off bringing you everything you want to get ready for the season.