When you go to Virginia basketball’s official page you are greeted with a somewhat odd picture: the team appears to be getting ready to canoe a creek.
However, it’s a disorganized image. Fifteen guys have helmets; at least seven, including the coaching staff, have none.
What’s up with that? What kind of message are they sending to young Virginians? Aren’t we all supposed to wear helmets now whenever we leave home?
While head coach Tony Bennett is wearing swimshorts, as are several other guys, a couple are wearing shorts and one coach is wearing long pants.
Most guys are wearing shirts (the coach in the long pants has a long-sleeved shirt on. He was voted Most Likely To Drown) but freshman Kihei Clark and junior Kyle Guy, are shirtless.
Guy is a splendid basketball player but it’s rather brave of him to expose his chest like that. Let’s just say he’s a gym rat, not a beach rat, and a good thing too.
However, most of the people in this picture have a paddle in their hands and that’s a good thing because last spring, #1 UVA was pretty much up the creek without one against #16 UMBC.
Sorry, we couldn’t pass that up.
The NCAA posted that game on YouTube in mid-September and it’s still mesmerizing.
Near the end of the game, at the timeout at 3:29, the cameraman finds a Virginia fan and focuses on her. Her facial expression is indescribable. It’s utter shock, complicated by fear and disbelief: how could this be happening?
What the NCAA didn’t post, but which you can find here, is Bennett’s highly praised post-UMBC press conference.
It was nothing but grace. Bennett was highly composed, immediately put the game in perspective for his players (and fans), and had nothing but praise for the heroic effort by UMBC.
Even as Virginia was ridiculed nationwide for the stunning loss, Bennett was changing the narrative. As much as Virginia deserved derision for their play, the praise for Bennett’s performance was certainly deserved. That man is certainly well grounded and Virginia basketball is in good hands.
We’re still waiting for their NCAA breakthrough though. Virginia had another collapse vs. Syracuse in 2016. Twelve minutes into the second half, UVA just fell apart. In 11 possessions, the ‘Hoos had four turnovers, blew four layups, missed a three (forgivable usually), then a free throw.
In those possessions, Virginia made just one basket.
Syracuse ripped off a 21-2 run and a ticket to the Final Four, winning 68-62.
Despite tournament issues, there’s no question that Virginia has become an elite team and are now on a par with Duke and UNC, if not in the post-season.
Bennett’s system is funky on TV but in person, it’s more like hand-to-hand combat. It’s incredibly intense to watch. In a weird way it reminds us of the 1986 Chicago Bears. The offense was okay, not great, but the defense was overwhelming. It came at opponents like a young Mike Tyson and like Tyson’s opponents, when you played the Bears, you knew you were going to take a beating. That team was terrifyingly good on defense.
The score in a Virginia game is going to be low but not the effort. The Cavaliers don’t give an inch.
And Bennett also has shown that he can sustain his program. Since 2012-13, Virginia has finished 30-7, 30-4, 29-8, 23-11 and 31-3.
The 23-11 was after Malcolm Brogdon and some other key seniors graduated: a bit of mortality but not too much.
Generally speaking though, UVA restocks as well as anyone. This year the Cavs lose seniors Devon Hall, Nigel Johnson and Isaiah Wilkins.
Johnson was a grad student transfer but Hall and especially Wilkins were really key players.
Nonetheless, Virginia should be able to overcome the losses.
Bennett brings back a superb backcourt in Guy and Ty Jerome. Guy’s physique may be suspect but not his jumper or his instincts. He’s a player. He has the best sort of arrogance, that of a guy who knows he’s really good.
And as good as he is, Jerome is better. A 6-5 point guard, Jerome is cold-blooded and always willing to take big shots. He never appears to get rattled (other than UMBC) and is one of our favorite non-Duke players in the ACC. He’s just really good. His control of the game against Duke in Cameron last year was nearly surgical.
Virginia also brings back 6-10 bruiser Jack Salt. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea but the blond New Zealander, who unlike Guy looks like he’d be totally at home on a beach, is a real muscle boy: guys tend to bounce off of him. And as a native of Auckland, New Zealand, he may really be a beach boy.
He’s never going to be a huge offensive factor but this season he’ll be key to Virginia’s defense and particularly in the lane.
Bennett’s teams so far haven’t been overwhelmingly athletic. Some guys have been of course - Brogdon for one, then Justin Anderson, who was as athletic as anyone he played against.
It’s not a priority though; the system is.
Still, when he gets them, it’s interesting to see how he uses them and this year he has two highly athletic players.
And ominously for the rest of the ACC, they’re bigger guys.
De’Andre Hunter, who missed the UMBC game with an injury, is 6-7 and could be a collegiate version of Kawhi Leonard. He could guard at least three positions and in a pinch, anywhere else. He’s that promising.
Mamadi Diakite is also pretty athletic. He came to Virginia as a really skinny player but he’s a redshirt junior now, he’s 6-9. He’s not as complete a player as Hunter is - Hunter is a serious NBA prospect - but he’s a nice shotblocker.
Those guys could really make life in the lane uncomfortable for Virginia’s opponents.
Jay Huff, a 7-1 prospect from Durham, came to UVA at 195.
Now he’s 230 and in limited minutes last season, showed he could shoot from outside. He has a beautiful stroke.
It’s hard to say how he’s developed but if he has put in the work, he could become a solid player. Someone to keep an eye on anyway.
San Antonian Marco Anthony, a 6-4 guard, didn’t play a whole lot as a freshman but that isn’t necessarily a problem at Virginia. Bennett, as we have noted often, has an eye for his kid of player and guys come up through the ranks. Don’t discount him either.
Italian prospect Francesco Badocchi redshirted but was highly regarded when he arrived.
Braxton Keys, a 6-8 forward from Alabama, transfers in but won’t play until next year.
Virginia also brings in four freshmen.
Kihei Clark is just 5-9 but he could be one of those guys who is lightly regarded who just fits Bennett’s system. And while he’s definitely smallish, he’s still bigger than UMBC’s KJ Maura, and Maura ate Virginia alive.
Aussie Kody Stattman, 6-6, isn’t well known stateside but he played very well in international competition this summer and could be a steal.
Argentinian freshman Francisco Cafarro (7-0, 215) is still slim but has the frame to be much bigger and also was outstanding this summer in FIBA competition. And keep in mind that of all the international variants of the game, Argentina’s style is particularly beautiful and daring. If Cafarro has internalized it, so much the better for Virginia.
It’s impossible for most of us to know how good either of these international players are but again, one of Bennett’s great strengths is that he has a great feel for who will fit in his system.
We’ve learned our lessons about this program. We’re certainly not going to bet the house on them in the post-season although this year they should be very motivated in March.
In ACC competition though? They could certainly finish first again.
Like Duke and UNC, it’s just foolish to bet against them.