​BLANK: Does Virginia deserve its top 10 ranking?

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Although usually calm, coach Tony Bennett became heated at the break, motivating his team to overcome a 12-point halftime deficit. 

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

When the AP preseason college basketball rankings came out a week ago, Virginia was ranked eighth. This is a comfortable place for the Cavaliers, who have been ranked in the bottom half of the top 10 during the preseason for three straight years now. You’d have to go back to 2012 to find a year in which Virginia wasn’t ranked to begin the season.

From the rankings alone, it would appear this season is business as usual for the Cavaliers. Upon closer examination, however, this year’s team feels and looks completely different from earlier versions.

In an era when much of the college basketball top 10 is rife with turnover due to early departures to the NBA, Virginia’s teams of late have always featured a battle-tested group of upperclassmen leading the way. From Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell to Justin Anderson, Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, the faces of the program, at least in coach Tony Bennett’s tenure, have always been around for years, instilling confidence and security. While senior point guard London Perrantes has started since he was a freshman, the rest of Bennett’s team is almost entirely unproven in a Virginia uniform.

It’s only natural to wonder if Bennett can continue his success with a totally new roster, as he’ll have to replace over 57 percent of the team’s scoring. After all, he hasn’t proven capable of winning without that core of players listed above. It’s possible that Virginia’s top-10 ranking is based on name alone — a strange thought for a school rarely thought of as a traditional powerhouse.

The stats don’t bear this argument out, however. KenPom, the foremost advanced analytics site for college basketball, has Virginia ranked seventh in the country, and first in defense. Although the familiar faces are gone, Virginia may still deserve to be ranked so highly on merit alone.

Part of the reason for this is because the 2016-17 Cavaliers may be Bennett’s most talented team ever. They add to their returning talent a recruiting class that can compete with any team in the country.

Virginia’s incoming class was ranked in the top 10 by both 247sports and ESPN. Led by McDonald’s All-American and five-star freshman guard Kyle Guy, the class is the best the Cavaliers have had in years. Guy is surrounded by numerous other talented freshmen too, with skilled power forward Jay Huff, guard Ty Jerome and forward DeAndre Hunter all ranked as four-star players.

This doesn’t even count talent technically not in the incoming recruiting class, which might be even more highly touted. Junior transfer power forward Austin Nichols was a five-star recruit in high school, and was first-team All-American Athletic Conference at Memphis before transferring. Redshirt freshman power forward Mamadi Diakite was ranked as a five-star recruit by 247sports due to his athleticism.

In total, Virginia boasts as much incoming talent as any team, Kentucky and Duke included. This is uncharted territory for Bennett, as he has never had a roster this talented before. None of the returning players on the roster were ranked higher than three stars by 247sports coming out of high school. Bennett has said before that part of the reason for his methodical offense is due to a lack of comparative talent and scoring ability. This season, that won’t be an issue.

In light of all that, it’s clear the Cavaliers are talented enough to merit a top-10 preseason ranking. However, Bennett’s task of converting that talent into a Final Four contender is going to be more difficult than ever.

Perrantes has never been a go-to scorer, and while the newcomers are talented, they’ll have to learn Bennett’s pack-line defense before they can contribute. Even then, Bennett will have to figure out how to divide time among so many potential contributors. Balancing more experienced upperclassmen with more talented younger players is no easy task.

While Bennett has earned fans’ faith, the start to the season has been rocky, even before the team’s played a game. Nichols has been suspended for violating team rules, and Diakite was declared ineligible for the first game by the NCAA. This will certainly hurt Virginia on the court, as the ultra-talented frontcourt duo will have to wait longer to begin gelling, and Huff may lose his redshirt this season as a consequence.

Off the court, disciplinary and eligibility issues are unnerving coming from Bennett’s notoriously well-run program. Whether or not this team can continue to represent the culture instilled by Bennett and embodied by players like Gill and Brogdon remains to be seen.

Backing up Virginia’s high ranking will be more challenging than in years past, having finally lost its core of proven stars. The pack-line system has always put a premium on transition defense. If the team is to succeed this season, Bennett will have to prove he can transition his team in a broader sense just as well.

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