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ACC Preview # 4 Virginia

The Cavaliers are clearly now at the level Duke and UNC have occupied for decades

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 07 Louisville at Virginia
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - MARCH 07: Virginia Cavaliers guard Kihei Clark (0) dribbles the ball during a game between the Louisville Cardinals and the Virginia Cavaliers on March 07, 2020, at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, VA
Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We were well aware of Tony Bennett before he came to Virginia. We followed his NBA career and of course followed his father Dick and the insane defense his Green Bay and, later, Wisconsin teams played.

Bennett went to Washington State with his dad and was designated his successor. When Dick retired in 2006, Tony took over and immediately posted two 26-win seasons - no big deal in the ACC but stunning at Washington State - and posted a more normal 17-16 before moving on to Virginia.

Still, Washington State, located in Pullman, just a brisk walk from the Idaho border and 18 minutes from the University of Idaho in Moscow, is not exactly a great place to kick off your head coaching career.

So it was fairly ballsy of former UVA AD Craig Littlepage to hire Bennett and it’s not like he was on a winning streak, having hired disastrously hiring Dave Leitao previously and Mike London in football, who would also ultimately fail.

Bennett’s move from Pullman to Charlottesville seemed odd but obviously in retrospect, Littlepage did his homework and Virginia is still the last team to win an NCAA championship.

When he brought his first teams to Cameron, we noticed something quickly: Duke could run out to a 10-15 point lead but Virginia always reeled them back in.

They weren’t good enough to win then but they were never far away.

His first two seasons at UVA were a bit tough at 15-16 - his only losing season as a head coach - and 16-15 in his second. His teams were tough though and as he got his own players in, increasingly so.

In his third and fourth seasons, he won 22 and 23 games and since then it’s been off to the races.

Since his breakthrough season in 2013-14, Bennett has averaged 28.7 wins and other than 2016-17, has finished lower than second in the ACC just once.

It’s been a spectacular, glittering run, and with apologies to Frank Sinatra, he did it his way.

As we’ve said before, Bennett’s slow style makes for boring TV but in person, it’s absolutely riveting. If you’ve never seen Virginia in person you wouldn't believe how hard they work on defense.

That’s the most impressive immediate thing about the program. Second to that though is their ability to manage winning time.

How many times have we seen this team do great things at the end of a game? We can point to the last Final Four for true brilliance in the clutch, but look at how they dissected UNC in the closing seconds of the game in Chapel Hill last season. Remember how Ty Jerome picked off Trevon Duval in Cameron in 2018 with about a minute to go? Then hit a three to pretty much put the game out of reach?

They do that a lot. Remember this? At times, Louisville must just be shocked by what they’ve found in the ACC. The money’s good, but the asswhippings, the comebacks and the relentless nature of the league? Getouttahere.

But we digress.

Last season was a bit down by recent standards, but who cares? They came off a championship season.

What about this season?

The ‘Hoos lose Mamadi Diakite, who became a really good player for them, and Braxton Key, who was also not bad, despite his offensive deficiencies.

Virginia has some excellent talent. We’ve been hugely impressed by pocket rocket Kihei Clark and his knack for making smart decisions. No Kihei, no title. Simple as that.

Big man and Durham native Jay Huff is back, and he’s no longer a beanpole. Now a 7-1 and 240 senior, Huff can toss his weight around a bit. And he still can really shoot the ball and has become an excellent interior defender.

Tar Heel killer Tomas Woldetensae, a 6-5 senior from Italy, is also back and is another solid three point shooter. And the Cavs add in Wojo/Marquette refugee Sam Hauser, who is a significant offensive presence. He shot 40 percent from three point range for Marquette. He was second-team All-Big East if you didn’t know and he will surely start.

Casey Morsell is also likely to start. The 6-3 sophomore showed he could contribute last season and may be ready to step into the starting lineup now. His shot was pretty awful last year though and will need some work. Good thing Bennett was a brilliant shooter in college and the NBA. He actually still holds the NCAA record for career three-point field goal accuracy (49.7 percent). Calling the Shot Doctor!

UVA’s starting five should be fine. The real question is the bench. Experienced returnees include Kody Stattmann, Justin McKoy and Francisco Caffaro. Kadin Shedrick is a redshirt freshman who didn’t play but who now knows the system.

Newbies: Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Reece Beekman and Carson McCorkle.

At this point, we have faith in Bennett’s system (who doesn’t?) Like Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, he finds his kind of players and seasons them. When they’re needed, they're generally ready to step up.

McKoy, a 6-8 native of Cary, only played in 14 games and we don’t have a real feel for his potential yet, but 20 percent from the floor is no way to go through life. He could build a niche on defense and perhaps rebounding.

Stattmann, a 6-7 Aussie, played more but also hasn’t really distinguished himself.

And Caffaro, a 7-0 redshirt sophomore, barely scratched last year, though he was behind Diakite and Huff in the rotation and therefore has to wait his turn.

We have no idea what to expect of Shedrick but he’s 6-11 and highly intelligent. If he learned and lifted last year (he is currently listed at 216, up from 200), he may surprise.

Abdur-Rahim, the 6-7 son of longtime NBA vet Shareef Abdur-Rahim, is athletic and will probably play. The price of admission at UVA is defense though so he’ll have to show some dedication there to get minutes. He should really help though.

Beekman can help Morsell give Clark a break which will help late in games. A lot of people think he’s got star potential for Bennett and as much as we admire Clark, 5-9 isn’t always the answer. Beekman (6-3) is seen by a lot of people as a likely star at Virginia eventually. He’s just a solid point guard.

Carson McCorkle (we typed McCullers - expect that typo a lot) is a 6-2 guard from Greensboro who some have compared to recent Virginia grad Travis Guy. He’s a talented shooter who might find a role rather quickly if he can play defense.

There are some other players on the roster we haven't mentioned. Trey Murphy, a native of Durham, transferred from Rice. Austin Katstra is a senior walk-on. Jayden Nixon started as a walk-on and earned a scholarship. Chase Coleman, whose brother Matt excelled at Texas, is also a walk-on.

At this point, you have to assume that Virginia will be good. The odds of them going, say, 14-19, are ridiculously low.

The issue is the bench: who is ready to step up and who will provide some offensive help?

We didn't mention defense because no one will play much if they don’t commit to defense.

We’d expect another Top 3 ACC finish and, if there is a tournament, a decent run.

Interesting fact: Virginia has five players from neighboring North Carolina. Four are from the Triangle alone, which underscores the point we made in the NC State preview about the level of talent from this state lately.

  • Kadin Shedrick, Raleigh
  • Carson McCorkle, Greensboro
  • Trey Murphy, Durham
  • Jay Huff, Durham
  • Justin McKoy, Cary