It’s time to wind down our 2019-20 preseason basketball coverage. We’ve looked long and hard at our new and returning players. We’ve waxed nostalgic over last year’s magical run. We’ve surveyed the landscape of this year’s ACC. The only thing left after this is the Syracuse game preview.
So this is our space for our writers to share their final thoughts on the eve of a new season. We give them no rules to let them speak whatever’s on their mind, their hopes, their worries, their excitement. By all means, use our comments and reply to us on Twitter to share your thoughts as well.
This season is in one sense the best position for a team to be in and in another sense the worst. On the plus side, the fans have zero expectations and most don’t even care what happens this season, so there is little likelihood of things turning ugly if the team struggles. There is very little pressure. On the minus side, there is very little pressure and the team will be overshadowed by what happened last year. It’s almost like the season doesn’t matter – but it matters like crazy to the players themselves. They want to prove themselves, make their bones.
I admit that my sense of mission is gone. Mission accomplished. My approach to this season is just to enjoy the games and watch the players do their best. I care, but I don’t care. I care because I care about these kids and want to see them succeed; I don’t care because the program has achieved my wildest dreams and I know that reasonable expectations for this roster are pretty limited. There is a lot of ability, but most of it is very young and the mix of abilities has some glaring holes. So I know they will struggle. No matter the record, I will not freak out.
My reasons for optimism are that Mamadi, Kihei and Braxton were sensational at times in the NCAA Tournament, and consistently played at a high level; that I think Casey and Tomas are instant contributors at a solid ACC starter level; and that Jay Huff is going to be a force on offense and is going to see a lot of time. An offense built around him and a defensive plan leveraging his and Mamadi’s rim protection could really surprise some people. My reason for concern is the extremely limited perimeter depth.
It’s going to be a fun season.
It’s going to be a fun season. Fans, players, Bennett, the program as a whole – everyone is feeling less pressure. It’s going to make for a lighter atmosphere and mood for everyone associated with the program. And when critics take swipes at the Wahoos – and they still will, though there are fewer now – fans have the ultimate comeback. Hey, talk to the banner hanging in JPJ. Now, it is going to be a challenging season, too. There are two more ACC games, and the team opens at Syracuse, which is anything but an automatic victory. Purdue will be out for blood, and that matchup is in the Boilermakers’ home arena. It’s going to take time for the team to gel, and there could be an unexpected loss or two. It may be hard to recognize the team at first, with The Big Three being such a huge part of the whole operation the past two seasons. That’s a lot of offense and leadership to replace. There will be “WTF” moments on offense and defense that will leave Bennett and fans shaking their heads. It’s going to be OK. Breathe easy and think back fondly on what just happened. Defending a title is HARD. BUT there will be breakthrough moments and big wins, too. The team is still going to be very good, just not quite as good as we are used to, but we’ve been very spoiled, especially in the regular season. It’s going to be awesome to watch the team improve and, hopefully, hit its stride as we hit late February and head into March. As fans, we can sit back and watch all the excitement and fun unfold knowing our Wahoos have proven their worth and belong among the nation’s elite. For one season at least, because of the championship, the guys will be playing with house money come tournament time and not as if the weight of the world is on their shoulders.
Attrition is woven into the very fabric of scholastic and collegiate sports. The players who grace the pitch, field and court are only with us for a few short years, and with the pros beckoning the very best of them, this time is even shorter. (Except for Jack Salt. He was here forever.) We’ve lost our Big Three and this will be the start of a new era for UVa. But you know what? Everyone lost everyone, too. We covered the ACC talent drain earlier this year here at Hoos Place, but it was a big story at Media Day: for the first time since all-ACC teams were named, every single performer on the 1st and 2nd teams is gone. The entire All-ACC freshman team is gone. And most of the 3rd team and honorable mentions have departed as well. Only Jordan Nwora and John Mooney (third team) and Tre Jones (honorable mention) return. That’s it.
Every team is starting over. Sure, Duke is very good at reloading, but this team doesn’t have the preseason hype that last year’s Barrett-Williamson show had. Louisville looks poised to ascend to the upper echelon of the conference, while it is very fashionable to think that UVa is going to step back, regress to the mean, lack the necessary offense. Whatever. Until you look at this:
Since 2011-12 season here are UVa’s preseason and final rankings in the ACC:
11-12: P: 4th F: 4th
12-13: P: 7th F: 4th
13-14: P: 4th F: 1st
14-15: P: 4th F: 1st
15-16: P: 3rd F: 2nd
16-17: P: 3rd F: T3
17-18: P: 6th F: 1st
18-19: P: 2nd F: 1st
19-20: P: 4th F: ?
— Brandon Lloyd (@blloyd8298) October 10, 2019
In the time that Coach Tony Bennett has been at Virginia, he has received three #1 seeds and a second seed, won four ACC regular season titles and a pair of ACC tournaments, and he’s won a national championship. In all that time, only once has he been picked to finish higher than third in the ACC. Bet against Bennett and the Boys at your peril.
This is an obvious transition year for the Hoos. That’s what happens when you lose three NBA draft picks and your skull-crushing center. They have a solid incoming class and an even better one next year – the beginnings of a new core. But that core is going to take its first shaky steps into the outside world this year, and they’ll do it as defending national champions with a glaring spotlight. Here’s the scary thing for the rest of the league: Tony Bennett is still coaching this team. That means those first toddling steps might just turn into Cirque du Soleil.
And this is the perfect ACC to do it in. Duke is once again just going to throw a bunch of freshmen out there and hope for the best. UNC is going to surprise people unpleasantly. Louisville is the Jordan Nwora Show, a strategy that never works consistently against Tony Bennett defenses.
The rest of the conference ranges from meh to blergh. This UVA team might stumble at times trying to get the chemistry experiment just right. It no longer has this giant core of battle-hardened veterans who bleed ice and shoot out lights. But everyone in the ACC is figuring things out the same way – many of them even more so, and without guys who stared down loss after loss after loss in March and April and came out grinning. There’s still some ice-bleeders left. A UVA team that wins a national title has arrived – but a UVA team that threatens to win the ACC in its transition year has no intention of leaving. And that would put the shakes into 14 other teams.
This is the most anticipated season of UVA hoops in the modern era since last season and Bennett’s first year. The reason those were so anticipated should be self evident.
But this season? After hanging a banner, this season represents the dawn of a new era and a new challenge of Virginia hoops. The Hoos reached the mountain top, had a roster reset, and now begin the climb again.
With so many new players on the court and holdover players in new, expanded roles it feels like just about anything is possible this year. There will be some bumps along the way and I’m eager to see how the program and fans react to them.
And, of course, I’m really eager to see how the players develop along the way. This team will look so much different in March than it will in early November. I plan on heading into the season with eyes wide open and enjoying the journey.
I’m excited about this season. Not necessarily in that “whoo, we’re going to crush the ACC yet again!” kind of way. But rather I’m embracing the excitement of the unknown. The Hoos haven’t had this kind of uncertainty surrounding its roster in a number of years. Even three years ago when we said farewell to Brogdon, Gill, Nolte, and Tobey, the Hoos still had London Perrantes and an experienced core of rising juniors to lean on.
What this season feels like is almost like the 2013-14 squad, where there are a lot of talented new pieces to integrate into an established system and culture. That team took some lumps early in the season, first to VCU, then when a disastrous trip to Wisconsin resulted in losses not only to the Badgers but also Wisconsin-Green Bay, and finally when Virginia got run off the floor in a 35 point loss at Tennessee. But that young team found a rhythm in January, settled into a rotation, young players getting comfortable in their roles and against a top level of competition. The rest was history.
No, I’m not ready to predict that this team will gel in time to go win the ACC again. But there are some similarities in the roster makeup. A ballsy young pass-first PG who nonetheless can score opportunistically (Perrantes, Clark). A well-rounded two-way bulldog 2-guard (Brogdon, Morsell). A sharp-shooting wing with the handles of a secondary guard (Harris, Woldetensae). A raw but high-ceiling physical reserve combo forward (Anderson, McKoy). A tough, smart, versatile scoring forward (Gill, Key). A do-everything next-level senior defensive post (Mitchell, Diakite). An unproven but high-potential offensive weapon center (Tobey, Huff).
Yes there are differences between the rosters. No comparison I just made is perfect; some favor the 13-14 squad, others favor this year’s team. Experience tilts towards the Brogdon-Harris title team. But the similarities in roles and potential are there, and make for a fascinating debate.
The similarity I really want to draw, though, is that just as the 13-14 squad was a launching point for a sustained run of excellence (in that case, a three year run atop the ACC and D-1), I also expect this year to be a new starting point for another multi-year run led by yet another generation of elite Hoo stars, the great 2019 class being built upon next season with the high-rated 2020 class.
It’s fun to see how things end for a team, watching them chase goals in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments, seeing our stars graduate and/or move on to the NBA. We got to really enjoy those moments in years past. But now we get back to the other side of the coin: we once again get to watch how things begin. It’s all the sweeter doing so with the confidence that coach Bennett is going to lead them back to the top of hill… not a matter of “if,” just “when.”