As always, we like to hear from you, our readers, and see what's on your mind going into the season. Our cadre of writers will take turns giving their thoughts on your queries below. Of course, you needn't wait for a Mail Call to interact with us... we man our Twitter account far more continuously than our employers or wives may like! So reach out anytime.

Let's dive in and see what questions and concerns you have for us going into yet another high expectation season:


Question 1: Taking the Last Shot

StLouHoo: 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Not Kyle Guy. Too obvious. In 2013-14, Joe Harris as the established threat served as a decoy to let breakout star Malcolm Brogdon be the clock-beater. This year, I think, we have to ask "who's best equipped to create his own shot outside of the offensive sets?" I could see Braxton Key being that answer. A big, powerful, natural scorer, Key can take on a solitary defender to score on his own or command help defenders to open up teammates. He may not start, but you can bet he'll play starter minutes, closing many games, and will often be asked to save a possession as the clock winds down.

Maize and Blue Wahoo: This might happen like twice all season.  I don't know who ends up actually taking the shot.  Some fool of a defender might sag too far off of Kyle Guy, or panic and leave Jack Salt all alone under the rim.  I do know that the decision will be entirely up to Ty Jerome.

Valentine: Ty Jerome.  He's got the best range on the team, he has the utter fearlessness to take the shot (see:  Duke at Cameron, 2018), he's bigger than Guy so he's more likely to get his shot, and lastly, the ball is going to start in his hands (again, see: Duke at Cameron, 2018).


Question 2: A Hypothetical Clash Between the Eras

Karl Hess: I have to go with 94-95 because there's so much we don't know about 18-19 yet. Six months from now I may have a different answer. But we do know that the 94-95 team was one of the best in program history, perhaps the best non Ralph team.

The 94-95 team would fight you for every inch of the court and defend you tooth and nail. They were also the equal of teams in the ACC that fielded Joe Smith; Tim Duncan and Randolph Childress; and Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace. 

I'd have some trepidation about the 94-95 team scoring enough to win. Burrough can certainly score inside but the Pack Line is proficient in shutting off a single post scorer. Deane and Staples are both excellent scorers but I think the 94-95 team needs a third scorer to offset the pressure on those two and to put additional stress on the Pack Line. I don't think that Jamal Robinson is the guy. I think he'd likely be shut down by the 18-19 team because he wasn't a good enough shooter to cause problems for 18-19. Other role players from 94-95 like Williford, Chris Alexander, Yuri Barnes, and a freshman Norman Nolan wouldn't be that guy either. 

Enter Cory Alexander. Assuming I get to utilize a healthy Cory, he's just the added scorer that 94-95 is going to need. People forget just how good Cory was back then. He's my trump card. And he'd love every minute of taking it to the likes of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy.

Kendall: Oh man, this is a TOUGH one. That 94-95 team that upset Jacque Vaughn, Greg Ostertag, and Raef LaFrentz's 1-seed Kansas to advance to the Elite Eight is one of my favorite basketball teams of all time. I was a senior in high school, happily UVA-bound, and loving every minute of that Big Dance rooting hard for the Hoos. Senior-season Junior Burrough was the star of the team, a beast in the low post scoring 18 ppg for a rugged, defense-minded team. Cory Alexander was the biggest name on that team, but he really seemed to struggle from a hangover stemming from the devastating injury he suffered against UConn in '93. Instead, it was lightly-recruited and modestly-regarded sophomore Harold Deane who led our backcourt. True freshmen Curtis Staples and Jamal Robinson provided adept shooting and slashing, respectively, off of the bench. And our frontcourt was deep, with the "scrappiest player I've ever seen at UVA," Jason Williford playing a key role. Battler Yuri Barnes came off the bench, and Chris Alexander played tough D and blocked shots from the 5. With Burrough, Cory Alexander, Deane, Staples, Williford, Robinson, Chris Alexander, and Barnes, the team ran a legit eight-deep, and used that depth in attacking the boards and playing grinding, aggressive defense. The winning cocktail was validated in March with the Elite Eight run. The 94-95 squad was easily one of the best teams in UVA history, and I know it's one that is remembered fondly by most Hoofans who were alive to see it.

We roll into the 18-19 season with a similarly talented team, playing a cohesive defensive system that is proven to be more effective than the one Jeff Jones employed in '95. My questions for this year's squad vs. the vintage 94-95 unit are offense and depth. We'll be featuring potential lottery pick De'Andre Hunter, and I think that he represents a higher singular talent level than anyone from that 94-95 team, despite Cory's long NBA career (he was the 29th overall pick and played eight seasons in the Association). Ty Jerome compares favorably to Harold Deane for purposes of this exercise, as does Kyle Guy to Curtis Staples. There's not really a Junior Burrough equivalent on the 18-19 squad, but I'm confident Mamadi Diakite will make an effort at approximation. Jack Salt is not nearly the athletic shot blocker that Chris Alexander was, but Salt contributes in other ways (general banging and setting bone-jarring picks) that the slight-of-build Alexander could not. In terms of depth and role players, I'm ready to say that Braxton Key is set to provide a presence at least equaling the impact that Jason Williford made, and the high-upside, boom-or-bust x-factor provided by Jay Huff mitigates the reliable grinding presence of Yuri Barnes. Kihei Clark, our ostensible #8 contributor, evens the numbers in this fight, but probably can't hold a candle to the offensive spark Jamal Robinson regularly produced for that classic 94-95 team.

Breaking it down by position/role:

(Jr.) Ty Jerome = (So.) Harold Deane

(Jr.) Kyle Guy > (Fr.) Curtis Staples

(So.) De'Andre Hunter > (Sr.) Cory Alexander 

(Jr.) Mamadi Diakite << (Sr.) Junior Burrough

(Sr.) Jack Salt = (Jr.) Chris Alexander

(Jr.) Braxton Key = (Sr.) Jason Williford

(So.) Jay Huff = (Sr.) Yuri Barnes

(Fr.) Kihei Clark < (Fr.) Jamal Robinson

Final Verdict:

94-95 with the slight edge, thanks to Junior Burrough's star power and presence as a go-to scorer in the post, along with Jamal Robinson's late-season spark. The 18-19 team has the potential to match or exceed the performance of the 94-95 team, but it'll take a true star turn for Dre Hunter (to match Burrough tit for tat), along with better-than-currently-expected performance from guys like Diakite, Huff, and/or Clark. 18-19 is probably better coached, is united by a stronger culture, and runs a better defensive system... but I still think the 94-95 team trumps the 18-19 team.

Seattle Hoo: Since we are theorizing before the games have begun and contemplating a full 2018-19 lineup, let’s look at the 94-95 team at November 1, 1994.  I think we anticipated Cory Alexander, Harold Deane, Jamal Robinson, Junior Burrough and Yuri Barnes starting, with Curtis Staples, Jason Williford, Chris Alexander and Norm Nolan in reserve.  The Packline would have been tough for 94-95 to deal with, because Burrough was not a very good passer and neither were any of the other bigs, so the post double would be likely to disrupt them.  Alexander and Deane would be a handful for the guards, but those guys could turn the ball over and go cold with regularity.

On the other end, Guy and Hunter would be tough for 94-95 to deal with.  You might see Jeff Jones go to Chris Alexander on Hunter, the way he guarded Jerry Stackhouse.  That would be a fascinating matchup.  I know Jones would not want Burrough having to guard Hunter. JB could check Jack Salt off the boards and help cover penetration.  Alexander and Deane would have a hard time with Jerome and Guy.  Deane was such a battler but he’s not the kind of defender who gives Guy so much trouble.  At just 6-1 and not particularly long, he’s not going to keep Guy from getting shots.  And Alexander would give up a lot of size and I’m not sure he focused enough on defense to counter that.


Question 3: Running into the Wind

Robert: No, and I honestly don’t see any reasons to do so.  A recurring series wouldn’t do any good for the program (it’s not a marquee matchup like a Villanova, there is no in-state rivalry like a VCU, etc.) and would only reinforce the narrative that Virginia and it’s fans are insecure about the team’s lack of NCAA tournament success.  Tony Bennett and the team have handled the UMBC questions with incredible grace, and there is no sense in creating any other narrative.  UMBC is part of the program’s story, and the team will move forward.  There’s no reason to treat it as anything more than the blip in the radar that it was.

Maize and Blue Wahoo: Yeah, a rematch!  Let's go, I'm ready to HEY LOOK A FIRE ENGINE *ninja smoke bomb*

There's precedent for this.  At or near the top of everyone's "biggest upsets ever" list is Appalachian State over Michigan in 2007.  Some years later, because he was a money-grubbing toolbag and because App State was a convenient and cheap OOC opponent, U-M AD Dave Brandon scheduled them again.

The decision was universally reviled, of course.  Why, everyone asked, would you just give the stupid TV networks a chance to rehash that damn game over and over again in the leadup?  To play highlights of it, particularly the blocked field goal, on repeat at every commercial break?  It was a relief when Michigan face-caved App State in the rematch.  It was a little bit cleansing.... but only a little bit.

If this was going to happen, this was the year to do it.  Right away.  Get it over with.  Everyone's talking about that thing and playing highlights of it anyway.  It might have the potential to be slightly cathartic, and UMBC is objectively a much worse team this year.  Jairus Lyles and Little Curly Punch-Him-In-The-Face-Please aren't there anymore.

But in the end, Coppin State is just as likely to hand you a W.  It wouldn't erase anything either.  And to set up a full-blown series, when everyone knows why you're doing it and we can all get reminded of it every year for 20 years?  I mean, we STILL can't ever go to Maui without the TV going REMEMBER THIS???  We'd come off as bullies, constantly bludgeoning some inferior opponent for their sins of the past - and that's the best-case.  Better just to go "new phone, who dis?" when UMBC's AD calls inquiring about another friendly hoops match.  Or lacrosse.  Or anything.

Valentine: No.  This loss was plenty embarrassing and traumatic, to both team and fanbase alike.  Forcing the team to play UMBC every year is like picking a scab over and over and over.  There's no time for the wound to heal so whatever catharsis that might be achieved by rubbing UMBC in the dust over the 20-year series is going to be mitigated by the fresh reminder of what is known in my house as Fetal Friday.

We didn't go out to Hawaii for 20 years to replay Chaminade. Judging from the interviews that Coach Bennett has given this year, I think he's completely moved on past the UMBC debacle. He's made his peace with the game and is more likely to be searching for the silver lining in the loss -- the 5-Pillars kind of life lessons -- than bemoaning our "unique" place in NCAA lore.

Not allowing ourselves to be triggered by what will surely be scores and scores of UMBC references in the coming months is probably a good life lesson for all of us.


Question 4: Most Improved Player

Robert: Early indications point to Mamadi Diakite.  He’s always had plus-athleticism, but he’s struggled to string together consistent performances throughout his career.  But now in his junior season (having already spent 3+ years in the system), this seems like the season for Diakite to take the next step.  He’ll likely start at the 4 (at least to begin the season), and he has the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of guys like Akil Mitchell, Darion Atkins, and Isaiah Wilkins, each of whom elevated their games in their junior seasons at Virginia.  Diakite impressed in the Blue-White scrimmage, hitting a couple corner threes and also making a baseline fade-away.  While not at the level of Wilkins, his defensive play should generally be fine, and with his minutes increasing from 15.6 per game to likely somewhere in the 20-25 range, expect him to up his 5.4 points per game as well.  I’m excited to see Diakite’s game this season, especially if he can stretch the floor and provide a consistent 8-10 points per game.

StLouHoo: I'm going to give you two answers, because I think the one I want to give isn't quite in the spirit of your question. You want to know about which of the RETURNERS has most improved, but I want to throw out a newcomer for consideration.

Braxton Key is a player with a ton of potential, all the physical gifts you could ask for from a modern combo forward along with a good attitude and a well-developed skill set. And then he went to play for Avery Johnson at Alabama, who was more content to let his players' talent carry the day than try to box them in with silly things like "systems" or "sets." And now Braxton has spent the offseason with one of the best developmental programs in the country, both in terms of skillset development and the S&C program. He was a fine player at Alabama, his natural talent and work ethic making him one of the better forwards in the league. We're about to see him unleashed with real, honest-to-god coaching and development setting him up for real success.

Of the returners, I think Jay Huff is finally going to see the game slow down defensively with some extended game minutes. Jack Salt was a foul machine as a redshirt freshman in extremely limited time, but once thrust into major minutes as a sophomore, he settled into himself on defense and became a more reliable defender. It's Jay's turn to get his defense good enough to let him stay on the floor, build confidence and comfort levels, and finally start putting the pieces together.

Maize and Blue Wahoo: I'm tempted to just say "Braxton Key, because he's getting better coaching."  The answer I want to give the most is Jay Huff, but whether or not he picks up the packline and plays within its demands - as he has not done so far - is one of the biggest unknowns going in.  But  - with the caveat that this is a prediction not based on any actual observation - I think the best answer will be De'Andre Hunter.  It's easy to forget that last year he didn't really break into the rotation until after the ACC season had begun.  He also had some disappearing acts on the scoresheet, partly because freshman and partly because the team had so many other options.  This year he IS the other option.  He should be ready to explode out of the gate, and now that he's had a year under his belt to learn what his athleticism can do, his consistency will be vastly improved.


Question 5: The Extreme Small Lineup

Robert: No, I don’t expect this “ultra-small” lineup.  Hunter is a natural wing with the ability to play the 3 or 4, but putting him in at the 5 wouldn’t maximize his strengths.  He’s only 6-foot-7 (which is small to play the 5), and it simply wouldn’t put him in position to attack smaller guards or utilize his quickness and length in the lane.  It would also mean Virginia is likely playing without its rim protectors in Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, and Francesco Badocchi – I think it’s important to have at least one of those guys on the floor at all times. 

The closest I think we could get to this “ultra-small” lineup is to have Braxton Key at the 3, Hunter at the 4, and Huff at the 5 (barring injuries, I don’t see Marco Anthony playing much of a role this season).  Huff will have to show more physicality and consistency on defense to make this lineup effective, but that could be an intriguing offensive set that could really space the floor.  Expect Tony Bennett to play with a bunch of different lineups in the non-conference slate, but don’t count on Hunter playing the 5.

Karl Hess: There could be a time and place for that. Three teams immediately come to mind where it's conceivable in my mind: VCU, Marshall, and Virginia Tech.

I see a couple scenarios that would be most likely. 

The first would be in a situation like we faced against UNC-Wilmington. A smaller, fast paced team that jumped on us and we need to adapt to the flow of the game to stay in it and ultimately prevail. The second scenario would be a late game close out against a team playing small and running full court pressure. Dre's ability to make pressure free throws and to defend multiple positions could make him an ideal 5 in this scenario.

What would the composition of this lineup be? Dre, Kyle, and Ty are definitely on the court. I think Key is on the court too for his ball handling, passing, and ability to score near the basket.  Assuming that Dre is at the 5, then you have to consider either Marco, Kihei, or Kody Stattmann as the last player on the court.

I think you could probably eliminate Kody given the two scenarios I outlined. In the late game scenario where the opposition is pressing in order to comeback against the Hoos, I like Kihei over Marco.

If it's a scramble situation where the Hoos need to come back like the UNCW game, Marco would certainly be in the mix to play. And he'd be a 3 in the lineup (Ty, Guy, Marco, Key, Dre). But I think he's still likely splitting time with Kihei in that scenario.

Seattle Hoo: A lineup with Hunter as the biggest player on the floor would have to include Key, Guy, Jerome and Clark, and yes, I could see that happening.  I could actually see it being not uncommon.  If we were being outquicked, or if a team was hot, I could see Tony going to that to match the quickness or disrupt the offensive rhythm.  That would be a good lineup if the opponent had multiple mobile players to lock down and no strong post presence that is good at passing out of double-teams.  It would be a lineup we could use to speed up the game, or to cope with broken floor situations.  I could definitely see it as a come-from-behind lineup.  In fact, I really like it, although the amount of time we can use it would be limited by depth issues.


Question 6: When a Question is an Annual Tradition

StLouHoo: I love this question, I really do. We see some variation of it every year. Of course, really what people are talking about is offensive tempo, since they love the quicksand possessions that our defense controls. Looking back at the last few years of our average offensive possession length, we've seen it bounce between 19 seconds and 21-and-a-half seconds, always in the bottom 20% of D-1, among the slowest 10 teams the last four seasons, and coming in dead last the last two years. 

So playing "faster," is relative. 

The offense plays faster when you have more aggressive, versatile offensive threats on the floor. Guys less conditioned to wait on the "perfect" shot and more willing to capitalize on an "acceptible" shot when it presents itself. We did shave 0.4 seconds per possesion from 2016-17 to 2017-18, and with Wilkins' defense now traded for more offense (whether Mamadi or Key), there's every reason to think we could see that tick down yet again closer to 20 seconds (the tempo of the 2016 Brogdon/Gill squad). 

Seattle Hoo: We will play faster when an herbal supplement cures ED.

Valentine: No.


Question 7: A More Adaptive Strategy

Karl Hess: I wouldn't hold my breath for a press unless times are desperate. I'm a firm believer in playing the defense in games that you practice. We practice the Pack Line, and likely only the Pack Line,  because we seek mastery of the scheme. Not saying that's sound strategically but it's my expectation of what we do.

If we were to toss out an occasional press (or zone) as a change of pace without dedicating enough practice time to it to be proficient, it would likely be shredded.

More to your question, however. I expect we've devised some wrinkles on defense to adjust to what Kihei and Jay Huff bring to the table, and take off of it. Coach Williford hinted at that this summer on Best Seat In The House (please confirm I have the correct outlet) when he talked about needing to adjust some things on defense to get Huff's scoring on the court.

On offense, I think the biggest variations we'll see is lineup combinations. Can we run a three guard lineup with Kihei, Guy, and Ty? And how would that look in Sides? Do we have a legit Death Lineup with Ty, Guy, Dre, Key, and Mamadi? And if we do, will we spread and attack?

The other thing that may be intriguing to me is how we use Dre and Key together on the floor on offense. Are we going to be rigid in how we define their roles on the court together? Or will they be fluid and interchangeable possession by possession or even during possessions.

StLouHoo: Not sure a press is in the cards. The word on Kihei Clark is that he'll be green lit to "heat up the ball," which is Tony-speak for apply intense ball pressure, around the half court line, which in theory helps bleed an extra second or two off of the shot clock before the opponent can set their offense; against our defense, that's a big deal. 

Rather, Tony has a roster, with the addition of Braxton Key and hopefully the emergence of Clark and Marco Anthony, that can go big, small, fast, powerful, or wide-spaced. How he chooses to use this versatility, whether reactive it's to counter an opponent's strength or proactive to exploit an opponent's weakness, is TBD. He'll come out in a base lineup, of course, as he always has (two traditional bigs), but last year he started tweaking his deployment as early as the first media timeout, going small early against a lot of opponents to better attack opposing D's. Here's hoping.

Seattle Hoo: Forget the press.  On the list of “Things Not To Bother Asking Tony Bennett For”, use of a press is right up there behind “use a zone.”  The closest we will get to a press is Kihei Clark picking up the ballhandler full court.  As far as adaptively changing sets each game, after nine years I don’t expect to see anything more radical than tweaks to the basic system to account for the particular opponent.  We do so more on defense than offense, and we do so reactively.  There will be tactical adjustments to expected opponent maneuvers.  I still have hope we will see 4-man motion regularly and liberally sprinkled in with Sides, but I’m not sure how much of that will be adaptive as opposed to the regular plan.

What you can count on is that adaptations will be at the tactical level and not the strategic - until absolute desperation time.  Then we could see anything.


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