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Men's basketball opens 2014-15 season, eyes ACC repeat

No. 9 Virginia maintains focus on defense headed into new year

The No. 9 Virginia men’s basketball team returns to the hardwood Friday for the first time since falling to Michigan State in the NCAA tournament. Despite reigning as ACC regular season and tournament champions, the Cavaliers enter the 2014-15 campaign as just the fourth-highest ranked team in the ACC.

Last year was a historic one for Virginia, capturing the ACC tournament crown for the first time in nearly 40 years. The Cavaliers rode this momentum into March Madness, where they claimed the No. 1 seed in the East Region.

Unfortunately, Virginia ran into the juggernaut that is Michigan State in the Sweet 16 — and was unable to overcome a size disadvantage created by Adreian Payne. The Cavaliers saw their magical season come to an end by just one basket against the fourth-seeded Spartans.

“With the other ACC teams that are ahead of us, I still feel like we’re underdogs even with the success that we had last year,” sophomore point guard London Perrantes said. “It doesn’t take much for us to stay hungry and I feel like that in itself will help us.”

Though Virginia has lost key components of last year’s dominant squad in Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, the Cavaliers return a crop of young talent which promises to make the team a strong force once again. Junior trio Justin Anderson, Malcolm Brogdon and Mike Tobey all played significant — if not starters’ — minutes a year ago, and will bring maturity to a relatively young team. Forward Darion Atkins is the lone senior on Virginia’s roster.

“We’re going to have different roles for different people, and people are going to have to step up,” Perrantes said. “We have a lot of leadership, a lot of experience with the older guys this year. We have a lot of pieces that are going to step up to take Joe and Akil’s spot.”

Perrantes is an equally important returning starter, coming off a year as one of the most talented freshmen in the country. The Los Angeles native averaged nearly 30 minutes a game last year and — while he was not a huge point-scorer — perfectly ran the efficient Virginia offense, ranking sixth nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio.

“[London] had a good off-season in terms of developing his physical abilities,” coach Tony Bennett said. “I think he’s stronger, more explosive. He brings that steadying hand to our team that will certainly be important as we get into competition.”

Regardless of who is on the court for the Cavaliers, one thing is certain: they will be able to hound opposing teams defensively. The 2013 edition of Virginia ranked fifth in defensive efficiency nationally — thanks in large part to the tight man-to-man pack-line defense Bennett employs.

The Cavaliers gave up 70 or more points only four times all of last season. Furthermore, they finished the season ranked No. 1 overall in scoring defense, allowing just 55.7 points per game — ahead of second place San Diego State by nearly 1.5 points. This trend will need to continue if Virginia hopes to replicate last year's success.

“Our staff has to impose our will on them, what we expect, and how disciplined we have to be defensively,” Bennett said. “I’ve always said it’s not natural to play defense, to be in the stance, to fight through screens, to really get after it. So if they’ll embrace that and they’ll understand that’s where it starts for us then, because of the length, because of the size, they can be effective.”

Though Virginia returns many key contributors, offseason setbacks could hinder a fast start. Perrantes missed most pre-season practice because of a foot injury and he will sit out along with sharp-shooting junior forward Evan Nolte until Nov. 16 due to a violation of team rules.

Additionally, the Cavaliers must avoid early season slipups in out-of-conference games — something they were unable to do last year. Virginia fell to VCU, Wisconsin and Green Bay in the first month of play, and was blown out by Tennessee prior to the beginning of conference play a year ago.

“It took us a while to really find our rhythm and hit our stride,” Bennett said. “I think those experiences of last year, being in those spots more and more. You certainly draw from and know it all gets played out on the floor.”

All things considered, Virginia remains in good position to return to the NCAA tournament again this year. Playing in what is arguably the strongest conference in the nation, the Cavaliers have still proven they are more than capable of going toe-to-toe with perennial powerhouses in the past couple years. Additionally, the schedule seems to again play to Virginia’s favor — with Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse each appearing on the schedule just once.

The Cavaliers will tip off their 2014 campaign against James Madison in Harrisonburg, Virginia at 7 p.m. Friday.