One last update.
It's the eve of the season, and we've spent the last few weeks rolling out a litany of hoops content. We've looked hard at our team. We've looked hard at the rest of the ACC. We've done so to paint you the most complete picture of who this Hoo squad is going into the year, what we can expect from it, and how it fits into a bigger college basketball picture.
The catch? We wrote most of this content weeks ago to be able to go to press with our print version in mid-October.
The problem? Life happened in the interim.
So consider this an addendum to correct a few things that need correcting due to recent events. Some are major, some minor. But in the interest of completeness, we wanted to share them today.
1) Francesco Badocchi is taking a medical leave of absence.
We don't know the nature of the medical situation, and the lack of official details probably indicates this is going to be one of those "let's respect the player's privacy" things. We have no problem with that. We just want to discuss how this affects the Cavaliers depth for this coming season.
Badocchi was intended to follow a similar trajectory to Isaiah Wilkins (now with the NBA G-League's Greensboro Swarm), in that as a freshmen he'd begin to be sprinkled in as the season progressed, adding some small-ball defensive versatility and energy on the glass as he developed a comfort level with the schemes on the floor. He wasn't expected to be a major contributor in a full-strength lineup, not with Diakite and Salt established as starters, Huff a year older and likely a better offensive option, and Tony's increased reliance on small-ball lineups.
But still, depth is important, as most seasons see some degree of in-season attrition (even short term) that lead a coach to lean on even the 9th or 10th guys on the depth chart. We saw Marco Anthony last year come through against Louisville when Nigel Johnson wasn't available.
The door isn't closed that he might return this season (he's still in school, and still listed on the official roster on VirginiaSports.com), but we wouldn't bet on it. Even if he's improved by the spring semester, he'll have missed a lot of "get your feet wet" opportunities, the kind that freshmen need to get into a comfort zone in Tony's schemes. Never say never, but most likely we'll be keeping our fingers crossed for a bounce-back opportunity next season.
2) Braxton Key was declared immediately eligible.
Given the loss of Badocchi, and the questions marks we had about our depth coming into this season, this is obviously a big deal. The former SEC All-Freshman G/F is a starter-worthy addition who can play anywhere from the 2-4, and with a little work guard players 1-5 against most teams. He's versatile both offensively and defensively, and unlocks a needed dimension to this team.
We know this was a possibility a while ago, but without certainty our writers covered it in different ways. Some assumed he wasn't eligible since they didn't want to tempt date (yours truly included). Others couched things with "if he is/isn't eligible." Either way, the ambiguity has since been lifted, so how does that affect things?
What made us dangerous last year was the combination of Devon Hall and DeAndre Hunter at the 3 and 4. Each had the size and length to be a multipositional defender, matching the Pack Line up well with both big and small offenses, while forcing defenses to stretch to cover four perimeter-oriented players on offense. That stretching of opposing defenses opened up the floor for driving lanes, for post scoring, for offensive rebounding... now we get to do that same thing with the pairing of Hunter and Key.
This also positions us well to defend the myriad small offenses populating the ACC these days. For as athletic as 4's like Mamadi (and Wilkins before him) can be, at the end of the day you always hold your breath when one of your big men is being forced to defend in space against a guard/wing who's more at home on the perimeter. You want to be able to defensively counter with a long wing like Hunter, or Hall or Shayok or Brogdon or Anderson before him. Now, with Key, we have two guys who can do that, meaning we can cover for injuries or foul trouble or even just in-game fatigue all the better. If young guards Kihei Clark and Marco Anthony can step up and provide extended small ball minutes as well, all the better.
We're going to see 4-out offenses in most of our ACC games this year. Lousiville (x2) with Jordan Nwora as the small-ball-4, Virginia Tech (x2) with Ty Outlaw, Duke (x2) with Zion Williamson, NC State with Torin Dorn, Florida State with Phil Cofer, Miami with Anthony Lawrence, UNC with Cam Johnson, all dangerous examples of teams that will attempt to stretch our defense. Key gives us a valuable weapon to now counter that and make the defense all the more formidable, and could prove an equalizer or difference maker in a pair of made-for-TV tilts with Duke this year.
If we weren't the ACC favorites before, it's hard to argue we're not now.
3) Pieces are missing from some ACC hopefuls.
Two teams that we were projecting to be top-half ACC squads and solid bets for the Top 25 are scrambling last minute to adjust to life without key members of their rotation.
Clemson saw RS sophomore guard AJ Oliver leave them team with the expectation that he'll transfer. Oliver hadn't made a big impact yet, but there were high hopes going into the season. He was a consensus 4-star recruit in 2016, and started to find a rhythm late last year when the season-ending injury of Donte Grantham afforded him a bigger opportunity. With Grantham and Gabe DeVoe both graduated, there was an opening Oliver could've seized. But the buzz surrounding freshman guard John Newman likely means Oliver had been passed over. To make matters worse, Oliver's mother was the women's basketball coach at Clemson before being fired this past offseason.
What does this mean for the Tigers? Depth was going to be a concern with a solid starting lineup returning. The pressure is now on Newman, along with returning role players Clyde Trapp and Scott Spencer, to give Clemson reliable bench minutes.
The bigger loss in the ACC was the indefinite suspension of Virginia Tech redshirt senior forward Chris Clarke (8.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.0 apg in 2017-18). The school hasn't said what his violation was, but if rumors are true (and being that they're only rumors at the moment, we can't in good conscience repeat them), he's not coming back anytime soon. To wit, they've scrubbed their official website of his presence. Clarke at the 4-spot was the key to their small-ball lineup, having the strength, hustle, and bouce to spread the floor on offense, but still effectively defend and rebound against bigger opponents. His absence likely elevates Ty Outlaw (another RS Senior) to the starting lineup, and the sharpshooter may improve the offense though at the cost of some defense and rebounding.
It's still a very respectable starting lineup for the Hokies, with all-ACC-worthy PG Justin Robinson flanked by Sr Ahmed Hill, Soph star wing Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Outlaw, and RS Jr big man Kerry Blackshear. But depth just became a bigger concern, with a lot of question marks on their bench, especially with 4-star big freshman wing Landers Nolley missing the preseason, first with nagging injury concerns, and now with whispers about eligibility issues. As it stands, Nolley is the only player over 6'5" on their bench. Blackshear and Outlaw are going to need to be marathon men.
We had Virginia Tech 4th and Clemson 6th in our preseason Power Rankings. If I were to redo them today, I'd bump up Syracuse (originally 5th) and FSU (7th) up to 4th and 5th, respectively, with Clemson and VT in order behind them.