Despite a disappointing (23-11) season in 2016-2017 for the Virginia Men’s Basketball team, which ended in an embarrassing loss in the Second Round of the NCAA tournament at the hands of Florida, there was still an air of optimism entering the offseason. With a year of experience under Freshman Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy’s belts, and the only significant loss being Senior guard London Perrantes, there was every reason to believe that the upcoming season would be a resounding bounce back to the previous winning ways and deep tournament runs.
However, only a matter of days into the offseason, it was announced that would-be Seniors Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson, along with would-be Junior big man, Jarred Reuter, would all transfer out of the program. Shayok and Thompson combined for 15.1PPG last season and figured to take even larger roles as Seniors in Tony Bennett’s system. Their departure cast a shroud of uncertainty about the program and the team’s performance this season is far less predictable.
That being said, a large number of rotational minutes are now left to be filled by a group of young players who are more than up to the challenge. Here is a glimpse at what the new look Cavaliers plan to send to the hardwood this season:
Although Thompson and Shayok have left, Virginia still boasts three very impressive Senior leaders in guard Devon Hall, forward Isaiah Wilkins, and graduate transfer guard, Nigel Johnson. Hall started every game last season and averaged an impressive 8.4PPG while shooting nearly 41% from the field, including 37% from downtown. Hall will likely start at the wing position this season after spending the past couple years at shooting guard. Wilkins also had a strong junior season last year, averaging nearly 7PPG along with six rebounds. More importantly, he was named the All-ACC Defensive team last season, and his presence in the paint, and his ability to keep up with smaller players on the perimeter, makes him an incredible asset to Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense. Wilkins battled with illness at the end of last season, hindering his effectiveness, and forcing him to miss the last game of the season against Florida. Newcomer Nigel Johnson is a bit of a collegiate journeyman, having played two seasons at Kansas State and a single season at Rutgers. Last season he played in 32 games and averaged a strong 11.3PPG. He is a capable scorer and a prolific passer, with 64 assists last season and figures to fit in well into the Virginia offense.
Virginia’s Junior class features two walk-ons in guards Justice Bartley and Trevon Gross Jr. The two saw limited action last season and figure to see similar time this year. The star of this class is 6’10” center, Jack Salt. Out of Auckland, New Zealand, Salt has been one of the most frustrating players to watch the past couple seasons. At 250lbs, his ability to set screens and box out for rebounds is astounding and his potential is limitless. However, he spent much of last season plagued by foul trouble and only averaged 4.1 rebounds to go with 3.7 points, despite starting all 34 games. His size, paired with cleaner discipline, could easily allow him to have a breakout season as a rim-protector and a capable screener on offense.
The sophomore class is one of the most exciting in recent Virginia history, featuring guards Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, alongside forward Mamadi Diakite. The trio largely energized the Cavaliers offense last season with Jerome and Guy’s outside shooting and Diakite’s presence inside and tremendous leaping ability. Ty Jerome figures to take over point guard duties following London Perrantes departure to the NBA and should see his 4.3PPG average rise with increased time on the floor. Guy averaged a solid 7.5PPG and shot nearly 50% from three-point range as a freshman, which was good for best in ACC. Diakite is 6’9” and 228lbs and with the transfers of Shayok and Thompson, should see considerably more time on the floor. He averaged nearly 4PPG and over a block per game, numbers which should rise this season. This group is the future of the team, and with a year of experience in the system, they should be even better than their impressive freshman debuts.
This class possesses some of the most intriguing prospects of the Cavaliers season. Of the five players, two are red-shirts with high expectations for their first official year on the hardwood. 6’7” guard De’Andre Hunter, and 7’1” center Jay Huff have spent a year on the sidelines, learning the system and gaining experience. Hunter was a highly recruited high school player who chose Virginia over Maryland, Miami and Notre Dame after averaging nearly 24PPG and 10 rebounds in his senior season. He has a strong outside shot and his size and length lends itself perfectly to the pack-line. Huff is already a fan favorite for his jaw-dropping dunks in pregame layup lines last season, but is capable than a lot more than that. Also a successful high school baller, he averaged over 16 points and 10 rebounds his senior season, collecting offers from schools such as Clemson and Duke. His size and strength makes him an instant asset on the glass as well as with rim protection.
In addition to the redshirts, three other freshman complete the class including guard Marco Anthony and forwards Francheso Badocchi and Austin Katstra. Anthony is three-star recruit out of San Antonio, Texas who averaged 25PPG to go with 10 boards in his last season of High School. Badocchi, out of Kansas, is also a three-star recruit, noted for his play around the rim. He has tremendous finishing ability and was a human highlight reel of dunks during his time in High School. The class is rounded out by Austin Katstra, a Charlottesville native out of Albemarle High School. He is Albemarle’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder, averaging over 20PPG and 10 rebounds his final year. He turned down offers from Princeton and Cornell to play for the same team his father, Dirk Katsra, played for from 1988-1991.