The preseason preview is winding down. The next thing we write will be the Towson game preview. We've covered a lot of ground to this point; thorough breakdowns of the rest of the ACC, in depth player reports on our roster, our musings and predictions for the season ahead. Now's the point where our writers share their final thoughts going into the new yeear, their hopes and fears and everything in between.
On the down side, I think I can muster only about 80% buy-in after the 16-1 upset. One can take only so many Lucy-yanking-away-the-football moments. Doubt I'll watch many games live. There will be numerous times this season when I check the score before deciding to watch the game on DVR. That UMBC upset hurt me on a personal level that I still struggle to wrap my head around. I feel... damaged. My fandom is damaged. My belief in Tony Bennett is damaged.
Meanwhile, a hot take of mine for which I've drawn a lot of heat from my friends and on the message boards: Losing Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins is pure addition by subtraction. Both guys - for various reasons, often outside of their control - were chokers. And the team paid a steep opportunity cost in order to put them on the floor; namely, stunting the development of Marco Anthony and Jay Huff. But anyway, I won't miss either one of those guys. My $0.02.
I really, really like this starting five, but I’m not too excited about the bench. If Key gets his waiver (and I think he will), then my opinion changes to thinking this is a Final Four or bust type of season – I think Key makes that kind of difference. But if he doesn’t, then there will be a lot of learning to do in the non-conference slate. Bennett needs to figure out if Badocchi can play meaningful minutes, if Kihei Clark / Jay Huff can hold their own on defense, if Marco Anthony has the offensive game to be a threat when he subs in, etc. The safe bet is still for Virginia to be the best team in the ACC to start the season, but the development of the bench will determine whether that still holds in February and March once Duke and UNC start to put their pieces together. Needless to say, I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for the Braxton Key decision. Right now this is a Sweet 16 team; add Key and Virginia should have a Final Four mindset.
When Virginia was cutting down the nets in Brooklyn, it looked like our year was here. I was certain they would be cutting down nets in San Antonio. Best defense of the Bennett era, best combination of offensive talents, good shooters, tremendous intangibles - even when the Hunter news broke I felt good about getting to the Final Four. The bullish predictions from last year's preview were looking pretty good.
I'm not going to shy away it. The roster this year is not as optimal and a couple of great glue guys are gone, but I still don't see an ACC team with better players than Virginia, and I see guys whose spirit I still believe in. The potential is phenomenal this year, but it is fragile. Can it withstand the whims of cruel fate that seem to toy with Virginia sports every year? It is hard to be sanguine when one broken bone or blown ligament can cut the legs out from under your season. It's the one thing I worry about for the season.
What I don't worry at all about is the players handling the loss to UMBC. It's a non-issue. As Guy said immediately after the game, "Bennett has instilled so much humility and unity throughout this locker room that it will be easy to bounce back." As a group they rely on each other, they answer to each other and they believe in each other, and what we all say doesn't really matter to them. We saw the work in the offseason; we saw the fun; we saw the devotion to the game - and the whole world saw the leadership. There is not a doubt in my mind that these Hoos will come out with a great attitude and focus and play damn good basketball. I think we're going to see a level of confidence and mastery we haven't before from Jack Salt, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Mamadi Diakite and De'Andre Hunter. I'm looking for greater consistency, improved situational awareness, and just a little more grit. If there is one thing you can count on in this world, it is that Tony Bennett's players improve, and most of those "questions for the season" we ask every October and November get answered "Yes they will." I see no reason this year should be any different.
I’m excited for the season to start. We know what we’re going to get from Ty, Kyle, and Jack. But everything else has an air of freshness and possibility. Does Dre make the leap to elite? Does the light come on, and stay on, for Mamadi? How do we integrate Key (if allowed)? Can Huff and Marco carve out minutes? How do the newcomers (Frankie, Kody, Kihei) look when the games begin to count in November?
I’m also ready for this team to come out with an edge and make America eat the acronym UMBC. There are some beatings in order and watching the team dispense them will bring me much satisfaction.
Maize and Blue
You’ll know there’s no such thing as karma or basketball gods if Tony Bennett never wins a national title at UVA. For the entire league to be so utterly depraved as to attract the attention of the FBI, and then for Tony to be the one guy who makes history in the worst way while being the cleanest damn coach in the country – well, the other cleanest damn coach in the country lost a few years ago in the final to Rick Pitino, so maybe if there are basketball gods, they demand you cheat or else pay the price. If last year wasn’t a prelude to the biggest prize of all – maybe not this year, but in the near-ish future – it is a dark and evil dystopia where the evil prey on the good and justice has left the land forever.
This year probably isn’t the year. You never know. But probably not. Too much depth has to develop all at once. (It would be helpful along those lines if Braxton Key can play.) I like to think of basketball as a chemistry experiment. Coaches have to fiddle with the equations and the ingredients to see what works, because even though you return some of the same players, they don’t quite work the same as they did last year. You have to give them new responsibilities, they develop new skills, maybe a new guy comes in who does it better – everything starts from scratch again. This year even more so, since basically the entire bench is new and mostly untried. That makes it hard to find the formula. My guess is that any long postseason run involves some numerical upsets along the way as the regular season throws a few grenades into the 30-win works from last year and lowers the tournament seeds out of the stratosphere.
But that is how UVA won a baseball championship.
Savor this year.
I don't just mean that in the generic "enjoy every year" kind of way. I mean enjoy it like you enjoyed the 2015-16 campaign where you knew it was the last ride with Malcolm, Evan, Anthony, and Mike. Because that incredible recruiting class of 2016, the one that included five Top 100 players, and had Hoo recruitniks salivating at what a roster led by Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De'Andre Hunter, Mamadi Diakite, and Jay Huff might one day look like? This is the year. And this is the only year.
Some, maybe many, of those players will be gone next summer, off chasing their NBA dreams. And the Hoos will likely face a dip in championship aspirations in that wake, at least until some of the higher upside 2018s, 2019s, and 2020s start reaching their potential. (That 2021-22 season, though? Watch out!)
I don't say this to crash your buzz, I promise you. I say this to get you to look forward to this year the way we looked forward to the season three years ago, with a heightened excitement. Because this year's squad has the same legitimate Final Four goal as previous Hoo contenders. If last year had parallels to the 2014-15 season (historically dominant defense, gaudy record, but a sometimes struggling offense, and an injury-marred ending), then I'm expecting this year to parallel the Elite Eight team's run. The conference is strong this year, and we'll take some regular season lumps, having to go 2x apiece vs Duke and VT, plus road dates at Carolina and Syracuse, is unforgiving. But the pieces are there for it to be a special March if we can just get there in one healthy, well oiled piece. I'm optimistic.
I've waited years to see this crew inherit the reins. I think they're going to do great things with their opportunity. Savor it. I will.