Ballyhooed Cavaliers commence hoops season
Array of returning, incoming weapons foster excitement around Bennett's squad
After a 73-68 win against then-No. 3 Duke in front of a raucous crowd at John Paul Jones Arena, it appeared that the Virginia men’s basketball team could make an ACC and even NCAA Tournament run behind the hot hand of then-junior guard Joe Harris and the steady post presence of then-junior forward Akil Mitchell.
Instead, the Cavaliers were stood up for the Big Dance after dropping two of their final three games to close the regular season and getting thrashed by NC State in the ACC Tournament Quarterfinals. They then accepted a No. 1 seed to the NIT, but suffered an unceremonious exit from the quarterfinals. It was not the ending Virginia’s players and coaches had in mind, and they’re committed to ensuring it will not happen again.
“It’s never any games off,” sophomore guard Justin Anderson said. “We learned our lesson last year by not approaching every game ready to play. There’s no such thing as a day off in this sport, you have to make sure you come ready to play against anybody on every single night.”
Last year, though the team was 8-4 against top-100 RPI opponents in the regular season, it finished a humiliating 13-7 against sub-100 RPI programs. A combination of a weak out-of-conference schedule and frustrating letdowns against inferior opponents ultimately derailed Virginia’s March Madness dreams.
It won’t take long to determine whether the Cavaliers are taking every opponent seriously. After losing all three of its games against CAA teams in 2012 — including a 63-61 upset at the hands of Old Dominion, which finished 5-25 — Virginia will open its season Friday against defending CAA champion and NCAA Tournament qualifier James Madison.
Anderson — Virginia’s leading freshman scorer and rebounder last season at 7.6 points and 3.3 rebounds per game — hit his stride at the end of the year, averaging a team-best 19 points during the NIT. Playing in what he deems “the best conference in the country,” Anderson is looking to take on a greater leadership role this year.
“We have two veteran leaders [Harris and Mitchell], and they’re great, hard-working guys,” Anderson said. “But at the same time, I can help lead the team in my own way. I think my way right now is vocally, being that enthusiastic player that helps get the team going no matter what. It’s something I’m trying to embrace right now.”
Malcolm Brogdon, sophomore guard who sat out all of last season due to injury, is expected to see ample time as a point guard and possibly shooting guard this year. Sophomore forward Anthony Gill, who also sat out last season after transferring from South Carolina, should also feature prominently in the post. On what is undoubtedly coach Tony Bennett’s deepest Virginia team ever, these two are attracting early buzz after promising freshman campaigns in 2011-12.
This extensive depth, also bolstered by freshmen guards London Perrantes and Devon Hall, has forced many Cavalier players to compete for playing time this season, and all to push themselves harder than ever before.
“The intensity has been jacked way up … from my first three years here compared to this year,” Mitchell said. “I think the guys understand that we have high expectations, and they also understand that every one of us can play. If you don’t bring it every day in practice, you’ve got somebody else right behind you.”
After the squad faced three ranked teams last season, Virginia’s preseason schedule boasts seven currently ranked opponents. The additions of No. 8 Syracuse, No. 21 Notre Dame and Pittsburgh to the ACC will bolster the Cavaliers’ strength of schedule. The Cavaliers will also host No. 14 Virginia Commonwealth Nov. 12 and No. 20 Wisconsin Dec. 4, solidifying their non-conference resume.
“This year’s schedule I think is strong on paper, but we are away from home more,” Bennett said. “But this year, you don’t know until the season how good teams are going to be. We will have to play for every game and it is a little daunting, but I think it’s what you need to find out where you are at early and to prepare you for the rigors of ACC play, which obviously is stepped up.”
Playing away from home was also not the Cavaliers’ strong suit last season. Although the team posted a program record 20 wins at home, finishing 20-2 at JPJ, it was an abysmal 3-8 on the road and 0-2 at neutral sites.
Bennett and his players attributed part of their success at home to the student section, which made national headlines after storming the court when the Cavaliers upset the Blue Devils, drawing the ire of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“We love the student section,” Bennett said. “They have been great since we have been here and it has grown each year. It always impresses me how they can bounce up and down for the whole game … We appreciate what they have done so far and hopefully, we’ll put a product on the floor that keeps them jumping and bouncing.”
With a schedule fit to yield an NCAA Tournament berth, it is now up to the Cavaliers to deliver. Though expectations are high, Bennett’s players are trying not to pay attention to the hype.
“We try not to think about expectations or anything the media is saying,” Brogdon said. “We try to just focus on what we’re doing in practice and working hard every day, because … that’s what we know is going to get us to the point to where all of these expectations are true. So far we haven’t done anything.”