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ACC Preview #4 - Virginia

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After an epic year, Virginia will step back - but not far and not for long.

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NCAA Men’s Final Four - National Championship - Texas Tech v Virginia
MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - APRIL 08: De’Andre Hunter #12 of the Virginia Cavaliers celebrates their victory over the Texas Tech Red Raiders during the 2019 NCAA Photos via Getty Images Men’s Final Four National Championship game at U.S. Bank Stadium on April 08, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Virginia defeated Texas Tech 85-77 for the national title.
Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The ACC has won national championships in 1957, 1974, 1982, 1983, 1991, 1992, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019.

Of these, you could say the most remarkable were UNC’s in 1957 (undefeated and two triple overtime games in the Final Four), NC State’s 1974 championship that had to go through UCLA’s dynasty, Duke’s back-to-back titles and last year’s by sensational run by Virginia.

Let’s remember that just the year before, UVA became the first #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed when UMBC just bizarrely took them apart.

Last year though, the Wahoos were a smooth running machine and one that seemed to have phenomenal luck in the NCAA tournament. The Purdue game went to overtime and Virginia had to overcome an astonishing performance by Carson Edwards. Who could forget the brilliant pass little Kihei Clark made to Mamadi Diakite?

Then Virginia beat Auburn by just one and needed overtime to take out Texas Tech in a riveting season finale.

There was luck involved to be sure, but there was also brilliance and hard work and a burning desire to respond to the UMBC loss the season before.

In the end, Virginia was a deserving champion. They earned every bit of it and deserve every bit of praise they won. They were great.

That’s the good news. The bad news is things get harder now.

Life was easier when UVA was being ridiculed for the UMBC loss. Dealing with flattery, with adulation, not to mention non-stop media coverage and other teams that will be gunning for them all season is not going to be easy.

Winning a championship is more than worth it. It does present new complications though.

And how Virginia deals with them is incredibly important. When Gary Williams won the title in 2002, he lost his edge. He was content. And that guy was never content before that. It ruined him as a coach.

Fortunately the coach is Tony Bennett, and his steadiness and grace, much of which comes from his underappreciated Catholic faith, is a key to Virginia’s rise.

We don't mention that casually. Bennett doesn’t make a big deal out of it but he does periodically say things that underscore how his faith helps him to keep a remarkably even keel and therefore plays a major role in Virginia’s success.

Bennett’s ability to stay calm infuses his team and it works together with a deliberate style to make Virginia extremely difficult to beat.

That style gets a lot of criticism and up until last season people thought it couldn’t win a title but that’s obviously over now. And while it gets ripped for being dull on TV, if you’ve seen it in person, you realize just how taxing it is to play against Bennett’s Pack Line defense.

It’s the closest thing to hand-to-hand combat you can imagine. In person it isn't at all boring. Actually it’s closer to mesmerizing. If you don’t understand yet, let’s make it perfectly clear: on defense, Virginia players work their asses off and they work together. It’s great to watch but better if they’re playing someone else.

This year Bennett loses a lot of important pieces: his backcourt of Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome are both in the NBA as is forward De’Andre Hunter.

Jack Salt wasn’t on that level but the massive Kiwi was powerful and selfless. And reserve guard Marco Anthony took off for Utah State. He won’t be missed very much but losing four starters is tough even for Virginia, where Bennett has managed to reload every season.

And again he has some nice pieces to work with.

Clark is back and while he’s just 5-9 (allegedly) he’s already proven he belongs. That kid is a stone cold assassin.

The Cavaliers also bring back 6-9 senior Mamadi Diakite, 6-8 senior Braxton Key, 7-1 junior Jay Huff, 6-7, 6-3 sophomore Nixon and 7-0 freshman Francisco Caffaro, who redshirted last season.

Sam Hauser transferred from Marquette and will sit out this season. He’ll be good next season though. And Bennett brings the rare JUCO to Virginia in Tomas Woldetensae, a 6-5 Italian who had a really good JUCO career.

You can pencil in Clark and Diakite as starters. Who else though?

If Huff is ready that solves a lot of problems. He’s 7-0, he can really shoot and he’s very agile for a big guy. He’s up to 232 which is going to help him. But if he doesn’t defend, he won’t play much no matter how well he shoots. Bennett has made it clear that Virginia is a defense-first program and he's never been a great defender.

Key will probably start at the other forward. He played a fair amount last season and he’s had two years in the system.

Virginia is surprisingly young. Diakite, Key and Huff are the only experienced upperclassmen back. Not that it matters much in his case, but Clark is just a sophomore.

After him, it’s Nixon and Stattman. Statmann played in 18 games and averaged 4.1 mpg while Nixon played in 14 and averaged 3.1 mpg.

If he can master Bennett’s defense, Woldetensae may get some serious minutes. We’ll have to see where he is. Same for Caffaro. No one outside UVA’s program really knows where he is currently in his development.

Virginia also brings in four freshmen including two Triangle natives: 6-11 Kadin Shedrick from Raleigh and 6-8 Justin McKoy from Cary. Chase Coleman is a 5-9 guard from Norfolk and Casey Morsell is a 6-3 guard out of the Maryland side of the DMV.

McKoy originally committed to Penn State but when he realized how far from home he would be he asked to be released which Penn State very kindly did. By then his reputation had gotten much better and quite a few schools pursued him, including NC State locally. We seem to remember UNC expressing some interest too.

True to form, we don’t know much about his other recruits but they tend to work beautifully in his system. We expect Shedrick is a late bloomer who will redshirt this season (he weighs just 200 lbs) and we’re not sure about the guards.

The bottom line though is this. Bennett has proven himself as a coach and Virginia has proven that is a program with legs. They’re likely to dip this year - there won’t be a repeat title - but as long as the Cavaliers can make the Pack Line work, they won’t dip too far.

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