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ACC Preview #5 - Virginia

After last year’s dip, Virginia could be set for a big bounce back.

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Virginia vs North Carolina-Wilmington
Mar 16, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Virginia Cavaliers guard Kyle Guy (5) defends North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks guard Denzel Ingram (10) during the first half in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Amway Center. 
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

You know things have changed for Virginia basketball when people are complaining about a lack of post-season success.

Remember when Tony Bennett arrived, a little-known coach from Washington State?

Well, that’s not completely fair. He was a former NBA player and everyone knew his dad, who drove the Big Ten nuts with his slow style and his defensive invention, the Pack Line D.

Sounds familiar, come to think of it..but we digress. Washington State is not a normal path to the ACC.

After two seasons he led Virginia to its first NCAA tournament in what seemed like forever, although it really wasn’t.

Dave Leitao, who became an inflexible and angry presence for Virginia, did get to the NCAAs in 2007 and Pete Gillen, who was a funny coach who basically saw his career end in Charlottesville, only managed one appearance in 2001, the year Shane Battier led Duke to its third national title.

So when Bennett led them back in 2011-12, it was a big deal. Bennett for President!

The following year Virginia went to the NIT but since then it’s been the Big Dance all the way.

For three years it just kept getting better: Sweet Sixteen, Third Round and Elite Eight.

That last one? That one really stung.

That one was to Syracuse, and Virginia had a 16 point lead in the second half before a horrific collapse sent the Orange to the Final Four.

Remember, this was a Syracuse team that saw Jim Boeheim suspended for nine games early and which barely squeaked in as a 10 seed.

So it was a really, really tough loss for the ‘Hoos and last spring, after barely surviving Wilmington, UVA fell to the Florida Gators by 26, a dreadful loss which saw Virginia score just 39 points.

So now the question is no longer is Virginia an elite team. The Cavs have played at a high level for several years. The question now is: why can’t Virginia get to the Final Four? Is it The System?

Well first of all, it’s hard. Only four teams can make it and 64 teams fall short every year. And second, until last season, Virginia has shown consistent post-season improvement.

There are a lot of really fine coaches who haven’t made the Final Four, including Sean Miller, Archie Miller, Mike Brey, Steve Alford, Chris Mack, Buzz Williams, Randy Bennett and Bob McKillop.

John Beilein has only made it once. Same goes for Mark Few and Bob Huggins. John Cheney never made it. Norm Sloan got there once. Lefty Driesell never did.

It’s not really a fair mark of success and it’s complicated by the love-hate relationship most people have with Bennett’s style.

The Pack Line - who the hell wants to play against that? It sucks the life out of a game. It’s like punching into a giant blobby bag of molasses over and over again until you’re completely exhausted.

And on the other end, his slow, methodical and highly efficient style also wears opponents out.

Virginia fans appreciate it; others grudgingly respect it but most people outside of his sphere of influence don’t enjoy it. We’re sure ESPN isn’t enamored.

But it works. There’s no question about that. And it is good enough to at some point get the Cavaliers back to the Final Four a trip they haven’t made since the 1980’s.

It probably won't happen this year.

Over the last three seasons Virginia has lost Justin Anderson, Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes.

Anderson was a stunning athlete; Brogdon just won Rookie of the Year in the NBA and Perrantes was an immensely competent point guard who just understood what the hell he was supposed to do, with the possible exception of getting a reasonably attractive haircut.

They also lost Anthony Gill, who was perfect for UVA in the post.

And now?

It’s a very, very different team. It probably won't make the Final Four. But it could be a really interesting group to watch.

Virginia loses Perrantes, Gill and Marial Shayok, who was UVa’s third leading scorer last season.

In recent years, Virginia has had guys like Mike Scott, Akil Mitchell and Gill inside. Scott was less chained to the post than the other two but still, Virginia went with 6-7 and 6-8 guys as their primary inside guys (guys like Mike Tobey and Jack Salt have aided them but were primarily used for screening, rebounding and of course defense).

This year? Virginia still has Salt, who started every game last year. The muscle-bound Kiwi is a tremendous physical presence inside, setting bone-jarring picks, hitting the boards and (of course) defense. He fits the recent Bennett tradition of a beefy big guy who bangs inside. After that though things change.

Mamadi Diakite, who redshirted his freshman year partly because he was rail thin, is now 6-9 and 228, and the native of Guinea is a legitimate shot blocker.

Last year he was still bulking up and played 14 minutes a game. He averaged 1.2 bpg. That projects out to close to four in a 40 minute game. He won’t play 40 but he doesn’t have to. He’s a tactical weapon. Three years of weightlifting and conditioning should really start to pay off.

Virginia also introduces Durham native Jay Huff.

Huff came to Virginia as a 6-11, 190 lb. kid. After his redshirt year he’s now 7-1 and 230. He’s a mystery so far but watch this video to get some idea of his potential which is considerable. What we see is a really tall, skinny kid who can run, who has a great sense of timing, who knows how to pass and who has three-point range.

He’s a gamer in other words.

And that timing comes in handy as a shot blocker.

Now it should be noted that he didn’t play the world’s toughest competition in this clip but still, if you can’t see why Virginia wanted him, you should watch again. The kid can play.

So Virginia has three intriguing big men.

At forward, Virginia returns Isaiah Wilkins. Dominique’s adopted son is a more methodical player than his dad but he’s valuable as a defender and a system guy. He’s a solid rebounder - 6.0 per game - and is a useful defender.

Devon Hall is 6-5 and can play small forward or guard. De’Andre Hunter is off his redshirt year and the 6-7 Philly native came to Virginia with a burgeoning reputation.

He’s a solid ball handler and has a 7-2 wingspan. His biggest question? Does he understand the Pack Line.

If he does, he’ll be a major asset for Virginia. He spent some time this summer working with former UNC star and fellow Philly native Rasheed Wallace. He could give Bennett a huge amount of flexibility.

Not playing this year: Italian Francesco Badocchi. The 6-7 forward who played high school ball in Kansas excited fans with his athleticism but a knee injury will keep him out this season. That’s a major drag; we’d love to see what he can do.

Ty Jerome is likely to take over at point guard. He got 9 mpg as a backup last season but Perrantes, who was a remarkable point guard, is gone so someone has to step up. At 6-5, he’s a big change from the smaller, very cerebral Perrantes.

He’s from New Rochelle, which once upon a time was the home of TV’s Rob Petrie of the Dick Van Dyke show.

He should be joined in the backcourt by Kyle Guy, the ACC’s most prominent and only proponent and of the man-bun (in his bio picture he appears to be sporting short hair this season).

Guy is a guy who can really shoot it. You don’t see it all that often, but his field goal percentage is inverted: he shoots higher from three point range (49.5%) than he does from two (43.9%).

He played 18.6 mpg last season and was, to be charitable, not a great defender. In Bennett’s system, you have to defend to get time. Presumably he’s gotten better over the summer. If so, he could give UVA a really dangerous weapon.

Virginia also brings in grad transfer Nigel Johnson from Rutgers via Kansas State.

Last year he averaged 11.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg and 2.0 apg. He is an explosive offensive performer, though.

Virginia also brings in an interesting freshman in 6-4 Marco Anthony. The San Antonian was a bit under the radar but he can play either guard spot and a bit of forward and at 228 is pretty thick for a guy his size.

He’s yet another versatile player for the ‘Hoos.

So total things up: Virginia has three ways to attack the post and the skills package includes shot blocking, three point shooting, rebounding and, of course, defense. Virginia also has four mid-sized guys who can play multiple positions, all of whom are at least competent ballhandlers and all of whom (should be) solid defenders.

And Virginia also has a pair of guards who are smallish but offensively gifted.

We didn't list Wilkins in those groups but as noted previously he’s a very useful player in Bennett’s system.

In short, this is one of Bennett’s most versatile teams. There are real questions to be answered: Is Daikite ready to step up? Is what we see on the video tape from Huff transferrable to ACC level basketball? Will Hunter be a solid player or a big factor? Can Jerome handle the point on a nightly basis? Can Guy temper his individuality enough to fit Bennett’s system? Is Johnson as explosive as some believe?

We can’t answer those questions - that’s why we play on court and not in a computer program - but our hunch is most of them will work out well enough. Bennett has proven to be a very savvy coach and an outstanding judge of who will fit his system. And they don't all have to work out perfectly. They just have to work out well enough to fill roles to help the team succeed.

Our guess is that last year’s 23-11 was an aberration and that Virginia will be powerful - and frustrating - again this season.

And if they don’t do well in the post-season, well, that still beats complaining about losing doesn’t it?

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