Another season of Virginia basketball is upon us, which means there is plenty to look forward to. Here are the 5 things that I’m most excited about for the new season:
Basketball is Back! Seems obvious, but it’s nice to have a new year to focus on. Tens of thousands of words have been written about last season’s heartbreak against UMBC in the 229 days since that fateful night in Charlotte; however, there’s plenty to focus on this year. Virginia has a lot of reasons to be optimistic: they return almost all their starters from last year’s historic run, and a few key additions (more on this later) promise an interesting twist. Not to mention college basketball is simply fantastic. It’s great to have it back.
Revenge Tour I’m tired of talking about the UMBC game, but I know Tony Bennett & Co. haven’t forgotten about it. The Cavaliers will be out to prove the doubters wrong this year, especially since the skepticism has never been higher about whether a defense-focused team can win big in this offense-heavy era of college basketball. Although Bennett has been resolute about his belief in the Pack Line defense, he’s not foolish: adjustments are needed. The Pack Line encourages opposing offenses to shoot low-percentage 3-pointers. Only problem? Those shots are falling more often as analytically-minded teams realize the value of 3-pointers and attempt more shots from downtown. On the other side, Virginia’s offense does not focus on outside shots: the Cavaliers attempted just 19 3-pointers per game last year, which was 286th in the country. In high-variance environments like the NCAA tournament, the ability to create/defend 3-point shots can determine the outcome of games. It remains to be seen how Bennett and Virginia can adjust to college basketball’s changing offensive play.
Braxton Key After two seasons at Alabama, Braxton Key announced this past May that he would transfer to Virginia. It’s certainly fitting – Key attended high school at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, had an offer from Tony Bennett coming out of Oak Hill, and is Ralph Sampson’s nephew. He’s also a fit on the court, where he should provide important depth on the wing and in the front court if the Cavaliers want to go small. Key’s strongest attributes will be his athleticism and flexibility. At 6’8, Key should be able to help replace some of the rebounding Virginia lost when Isaiah Wilkins graduated; however, he has the quickness and speed to be a threat in transition, something Virginia sorely lacked at times last year. While learning the Pack Line defense takes time, these traits ought to allow Key to contribute immediately, whether that’s off the bench or in the starting line up. The trio of Key, De’Andre Hunter, and Mamadi Diakite should provide Bennett with some very interesting line up combinations.
New and Improved Mamadi Speaking of Mamadi – this could finally be the year he begins to take off. Diakite spent the offseason in Miami working on his game, and everything the public has seen seems to suggest he made major improvements. The freakish athleticism has always been his strongest attribute, and he contributed more last year on the defensive end of the floor. He’ll be asked to anchor the defense this year alongside Jack Salt, but he should receive more opportunities on offense. He’s shown flashes – he shot 78% from the free throw line last year, and his size/athleticism combination makes him an ideal role man if the Cavaliers add more Pick-n-Roll to the offense (which they should, by the way). Look for Diakite to receive lots of opportunity in November against lesser opponents in what could be a sign of bigger things to come.
Loaded ACC Play Once again, the Atlantic Coast Conference is loaded with top-notch talent and storylines. Early 2019 Tournament Bracket projections have the ACC sending 9 teams to the tournament, which would match last year’s number and again lead the nation. The preseason AP Top 25 poll has 7 ACC teams, also tops in the country. Duke’s No. 1 ranked recruiting class will try to bring a championship to Durham, while Chris Mack attempts to restore order at Louisville. Virginia will try to replicate last season’s 17-1 romp through conference play. De’Andre Hunter should receive ACC Player of the Year votes, while Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy were on the media’s preseason All-ACC teams. Coach Bennett begins his 10th season at Virginia with arguably his most talented team yet, especially in terms of versatility and athleticism. Plenty to follow and look forward to this year in the ACC, in Charlottesville and beyond.