Key Returners: Kyle Guy, Isaiah Wilkins, Ty Jerome, Mamadi Diakite, Devon Hall, Jack Salt
Key Losses: London Perrantes, Marial Shayok, Darius Thompson
Key Newcomers: Nigel Johnson, Jay Huff, DeAndre Hunter, Marco Anthony
Outlook: Virginia is what I like to call a “copy and paste” team – due to the consistency of its system and the fact that the Cavaliers seem to reload no matter who is in the lineup, you can essentially copy and paste the team preview from the previous year and simply update the names. Yes, I just made up that term now! However, this year will test that theory more than most. Another of Tony Bennett’s program pillars is gone, as London Perrantes takes his smooth jumper and crazy hair to the NBA (likely G-League). Additionally, unlike previous years, the Cavs saw several players transfer from the program, putting an even larger onus on the team’s extremely talented 2016 recruiting class to maintain Virginia’s excellence.
Tony Bennett’s calling card is the pack line defense, a consistent, disciplined system that mandates several tenets – physical man-to-man inside an imaginary line just inside of the three-point line, doubling the post, crisp rotations, and stalwart defensive rebounding. It’s relatively simple in theory, but Bennett’s mastery of the intricacies of the style and the way he’s able to teach it every year has allowed the Cavs to finish in the top 10 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings in five of the last six years. While some perimeter pieces do move on, the interior defense should be elite again, as Jack Salt, Isaiah Wilkins, Devon Hall (more of a wing until Wilkins got hurt late), and Mamadi Diakite all return, the team’s mainstays up front. Wilkins and Salt are both strong rebounders who can also intimidate at the rim, but it’s Diakite who is overflowing with potential – he had a 12.1% block rate last season, and if he maintains that in a larger minutes load this season, he’ll be near the top of the ACC leaderboard.
Virginia also plays at the pace of the sloths from Zootopia, limiting transition opportunities for both teams and forcing opposing offenses to manufacture points in halfcourt settings. This inherently limits opponents’ efficiency, as transition is an easy way to get layups and open rhythm threes. Bennett teams also rarely turn the ball over offensively, which reinforces their ability to control the game’s tempo.
In addition to their careful ways with the ball, the Cavs are hyper-deliberate with their offensive attack, often working the shot clock down under ten seconds. They run a mover-blocker motion offense in which players have designated rolls as screeners or cutters (I broke it down last year here), patiently waiting for a curl jumper or pocket pass to a rolling big man. This year may open up more offensive opportunities, though, with two talented sophomores likely manning the starting guard spots: Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy.
Jerome is a fearless PG who slowly clawed his way into the rotation as the year went on, displaying some outside shooting ability and an evolving understanding of the team’s system. Guy is a gem at shooting guard, probably one of the best pure shooters in the country and glaringly obvious candidate to breakout this season with higher usage and more playing time. Bennett became increasingly creative in finding ways to get him the ball in opportune positions as the season went on (as long as he wasn’t mysteriously benching him), such as quick pitch-backs off curls and sets in which Guy poses as a screener before sprinting off one or multiple screens. Rutgers grad transfer Nigel Johnson gives them important depth in the backcourt as another “mover” option, and his ball security and defense should be welcome additions.
An overall disturbing trend on the offensive end is how frequently the team takes 2-point jumpers. The curl-heavy offense is partially to blame, but some players also trend too far in this direction (Hall and now-departed Marial Shayok were big culprits of this). Two players who may help this distribution are redshirt freshmen Jay Huff and DeAndre Hunter, the other members of the talented 2016 class.
Huff is a thin, lanky big man with an effortless stroke from range, though his release seemed low in high school and he didn’t get a ton of lift. His ability to shoot at 6’10 while using pump fakes liberally to put the ball on the floor with some craft and wiggle has drawn comparisons to Frank Kaminsky. While I would definitely pump the breaks on that for now, he has the potential to be the most skilled big man Bennett has ever had in Charlottesville. He’ll need to embrace the physical nature of UVA basketball to see significant time over Salt, Wilkins, or Diakite. Hunter, on the other hand, is a deadeye outside shooter with some length and bounce. Virginia needs some size on the wing after Shayok and Darius Thompson transferred, so Hunter may work into the wing rotation right from the start.
Bottom Line: This roster has some turnover, sure, but it seems a safe bet that the Cavs’ defense will again be a force to be reckoned with (I’ll say top-15 in KenPom). The offensive upside is there, too, with the development of Jerome and Guy, the addition of Johnson, and the intrigue of Huff and Hunter. While many (including both my colleagues) are expecting Virginia to take a step back this season, I am happy to trust the coach, the program structure, and its ability to produce consistent winners – to the tune of another top-5 ACC finish and a regular perch in Top 25 polls.