Virginia basketball looks forward to 2016-17 season
Coach Tony Bennett addresses media in advance of upcoming season
Removed at least in time from that gut-wrenching 68-62 loss to Syracuse in last season’s Elite Eight and the departure of his four senior leaders — Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte — whose collective contribution to the Virginia basketball program goes without saying, Coach Tony Bennett addressed the media Monday afternoon in advance of the 2016-17 season.
“We’ve got good depth, and we’ve got good heart,” Bennett said. “We’re going to grow a lot. We’re going to learn a lot. I just want us to, like I said, whatever this team can become, whatever their max is, that’s what we’re pushing for.”
A little more than three weeks out from his team’s opening game at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Nov. 11, Bennett was honest about the unusual challenge this season brings, as he and his staff call upon returnees to assume bigger roles while at the same time teaching four true freshmen, a redshirt freshman and one transfer the Cavalier system. The pieces haven’t all fit together yet, but that is to be expected.
“We keep stats in practice, and our assist-to-turnover, you know, has been atrocious,” Bennett said. “It’s been really bad. We’re not understanding yet how strong we have to be with the ball, how we have to value it, those things … So what can I do to help them? We have to make little tweaks in some of the drills we do, but even in parts of our offense.”
Bennett will rely in more ways than one on his constant this season, senior floor general London Perrantes. The Los Angeles, Calif. native is coming off a career year in which he averaged 11 points and 4.4 assists per game, and led the ACC in three-point percentage at 48.8 percent. Beyond statistics, Perrantes provides Virginia’s offense with seemingly unshakeable composure and hard-nosed toughness at the point guard position.
“Every year, he’s just progressed his game, never sacrificing how he plays,” Bennett said. “That’s the one thing, everybody wants him to be more aggressive and shoot a lot more, especially this year. I think he has done that each year, and I think he needs to do that this year. But he has a very good feel for the game, and command of the game and recognizes what needs to be done.”
Outside of Perrantes exist the unknowns. Two juniors — forward Isaiah Wilkins and guard Devon Hall — are the team’s only other returning starters, and though each showed signs of promise last season, starting every game was not by any stretch a lock. Wilkins will have to improve his mid-range game, while Hall will have to show he can knock down perimeter shots consistently.
“We’ve always had a next-man-up mentality,” Wilkins said. “So this is the time.”
Then there are the returnees off the bench — junior guard Marial Shayok (4.3 points per game), junior guard Darius Thompson (4.3 ppg), sophomore forward Jack Salt (1.7 ppg) and sophomore forward Jarred Reuter (1.5 ppg). They had their moments, whether it was hitting the huge contested shot and slashing to the cup unexpectedly in the case of the first two, or snatching rebounds off the glass and finishing strong in the case of the last two. But what will those four bring to the table this season? At most, they will own their supporting roles and be leaders in practice.
“I’ve just been trying to talk,” Salt said. “Talking on defense, especially to the bigs Jay [Huff] and Mamadi [Diakite], those two, giving them help, you know. It’s hard coming in here and having to play this defense … They’ve been pretty good.”
Huff is one of those four true Cavalier freshmen. The 6-foot-11 forward averaged 16.3 points and 10.1 rebounds in his senior season at Voyager Academy. Since he first arrived at Virginia, Huff has put on 25 pounds according to basketball sports information director Erich Bacher. With his size and his ability to extend the floor, even past the arc, Huff could be a real weapon in the future. He might redshirt this season.
The three freshmen guards — Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter — have the potential to be exceptional college players. Most scouting experts regard Guy as one of the top three-point shooters from his 2016 class. The McDonald’s All-American also has surprise, rim-rattling athleticism. Bennett likes to compare Jerome, specifically the way he slows down the action and reads the game, to Perrantes. Jerome can also stroke it from three, while Hunter, at 6-foot-7, has the length to be a versatile small forward.
“I know they are all very talented,” Diakite said. “They can all shoot the ball. They can do different things in different areas. They just need some conditioning, strength and some experience. That’s all really. Besides that, I think they’re really impressive.”
Diakite and junior forward Austin Nichols are the real X-factors this season, especially the latter. Diakite is a 6-foot-9 leaper, arguably Virginia’s top athlete and has a jump shot. Nichols, who averaged 13.3 points per game at Memphis in 2014-15, has tremendous touch with either hand in and around the paint and is a proven shot blocker. Both forwards are developing into elite rim protectors and defenders in Bennett's pack line.
“I’ve never played in a defense that was just as tough to understand at first,” Nichols said. “But once you get it, it’s all about being in the right positions. And when we’re all clicking on defense, I think it’s a pretty beautiful sight.”
All the pieces haven't formed nor clicked into place quite yet for Virginia basketball, but when they do, look out. The Cavaliers have their most efficient product on both ends of the court lying in wait.