Men’s basketball kicks off its season against UNC Greensboro

Cavaliers come into the year young, but talented

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Virginia Coach Tony Bennett will lead a young team Friday against UNC Greensboro.

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

A long offseason full of changes and buildup ends for the Virginia men’s basketball team Friday night when it takes the floor for the first time this season. The Cavaliers are set to face UNC Greensboro at John Paul Jones Arena, looking to start their season strong at home.

After months of training and preparation, the Cavaliers are itching to get back on the court to prove themselves.

“I’m pretty excited,” said Isaiah Wilkins, senior forward and team captain. “[I’m] kind of losing my mind, ready to play … [I’m] just trying to take it all in and have fun with these guys.”

Virginia comes into the 2017-2018 season with mixed expectations, following an up-and-down season and some unexpected roster turnover. The Cavaliers finished 23-11 last year, going out with a rough loss to Florida in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 in which the Virginia  offense went dormant. The team lost guard London Perrantes — last year’s leading scorer — to graduation, as expected. But, soon thereafter, Virginia had guards Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson and forward Jarred Reuter transfer. Virginia Coach Tony Bennett had his work cut out for him in the offseason to get several new players ready for big minutes. 

Luckily for Bennett, he has two immensely promising players taking off their redshirts — forwards De’Andre Hunter and Jay Huff. Hunter has the potential to be a great scorer on the wing, while the 7-foot-1 Huff looks to improve Virginia’s much needed post-scoring game.

“They show flashes and great promise,” Bennett said. “Both are talented — they work hard, they both have added some strength … For them it will just be … [About] becoming very disciplined, very steady and being able to handle the physicality.” 

Bennett also gained a new addition to the team off the graduate transfer market in Nigel Johnson, a 6-foot-1 guard transferring from Rutgers. Johnson had a successful year as the Scarlet Knights’ second-leading scorer last season and brings quickness and driving ability to Virginia’s backcourt. 

Coming from a struggling Rutgers team, Johnson has high hopes for the Cavaliers given their recent success, starting with making the NCAA Tournament. 

“To go to the tournament, that’s one of the biggest reasons I came here,” Johnson said. “That’s one thing I have a big stress on for my senior year … With the people I have around me, I feel like that’s definitely something we’re going to do.”

Helping the newcomers along will be a crop of returning Cavaliers led by senior captains Wilkins and guard Devon Hall. Hall said he is especially excited about his role this season and looks to be more aggressive as a scorer, where he has steadily improved over his career at Virginia. 

“[Being aggressive] is a part of being a leader on this team and being here for a fifth year,” Hall said. “I’ve got to be more aggressive in order for this team to be successful … I’ve got to defend, I’ve got to be the vocal leader.”

While Hall may take more of an aggressive role on offense, Wilkins will serve as the anchor of the nation’s best defense from a year ago. An ACC-All Defensive Team selection, Wilkins and his presence on the interior were sorely missed down the stretch last season when he was severely limited by an illness. Now fully healthy, he and junior center Jack Salt — the team’s third captain — return as one of the nation’s toughest inside defensive duos. 

The captains will be joined on the floor by sophomore guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, both looking to elevate their games to star-level after solid freshman campaigns. Jerome will try to fill the void at point left by Perrantes. If his defense catches up to his versatility on offense, the sophomore could enjoy a breakout season as Virginia’s next floor general.

Guy, meanwhile, proved he can shoot the lights out last season and had a penchant for getting buckets in crucial spots. Like Jerome, his improvement on defense will be paramount to sustain success in Bennett’s system, and the sophomore said he believes his experience last season put him on a great path to becoming a complete player.

“The only way you learn is from repetition and experience,” Guy said. “Now that I’ve got that, I think I’ve taken the next step in [learning] the defense.” 

Balancing youth and experience on the roster will be an interesting challenge for Bennett to sort out as the season progresses. But, with a tough non-conference slate, all of the Cavaliers must be ready to perform at a high level from the get-go. 

Virginia’s first action comes against a familiar UNC Greensboro team, whom the Cavaliers took down 76-51 on the road in last season’s opener. The Spartans finished 25-10 last year, losing to Syracuse in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament last year. 

Bennett and Virginia fans will get their first look at a revamped team when the Cavaliers kick their season off Friday. Tip-off for the matchup against UNC Greensboro is scheduled for 7 p.m. at John Paul Jones Arena.  

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