Entering his seventh season in Charlottesville, coach Tony Bennett has undoubtedly brought Virginia basketball back into the national spotlight — back-to-back 30-win seasons and ACC regular-season titles will do that for a program. Bennett has built the program to levels unreached since University Hall was dubbed “Ralph’s House” in the Terry Holland era.
Ranked No. 6 in both the preseason AP Top 25 and the USA Today Coaches Poll, national pundits agree Virginia should maintain its positive trajectory entering the 2015-16 season. And for this, both fans and players alike can embrace Bennett’s fifth pillar — thankfulness.
But like last year when the Cavaliers lost Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell to graduation and the NBA draft, the upcoming season will test Virginia’s third pillar — unity.
Guard Justin Anderson and forward Darion Atkins provided consistency and passion for the 2014-15 team. But with the former forgoing his senior season for the NBA and the latter exhausting his eligibility, Bennett must again remold his lineup.
“We’re going to be a different team this year — I say that every year,” Bennett said. “Our personnel is different. We will not be a clone of last year.”
But if there is a class that can continue Bennett’s excellence and perhaps even make a deep postseason run, it’s the current group of seniors. Led by guard Malcolm Brogdon, forward Anthony Gill and center Mike Tobey, the Cavaliers have three of the best players in the country at their respective positions.
Brogdon is coming off a season that featured first-team All-ACC and second-team All-American honors. Known for his leadership both on and off the court, he led the team in scoring last season as the only player to start all 34 of Virginia’s games.
“[Brogdon] is a workhorse,” Bennett said.
Gill, a third-team all-conference selection and member of the All-ACC defensive team, will look to continue his physical play in the paint while replacing Atkins’ defensive prowess.
Meanwhile, Tobey could be the surprise of the bunch. After three years of up-and-down play, the New York native has had his best offseason to date, Bennett said. The big-man has always possessed incredible ability, including both an inside and outside game. But this season, it seems his skills might finally translate into a consistent on-court product.
“He’s had a few days in practice that he’s been unstoppable at times,” Bennett said. “I didn’t see that as much over the years.”
Virginia’s real challenge, however, will be working its youngsters into the rotation. With just one scholarship junior eligible this season — starting point guard London Perrantes — the Cavaliers must find the players that can consistently come off the bench and provide a spark to the team.
Senior forward Evan Nolte stepped in to Anderson’s role with varying degrees of success last season, starting a career-high 11 games. Although he provides an excellent presence on the defensive end of the court, his ability to stretch the floor is hindered by an inconsistent jumper and limited athleticism.
Nolte will compete for minutes with sophomore guard Marial Shayok. The Canadian flashed his potential last season as the only Cavalier freshman to appear in all 34 games. With his defensive length and ability to get to the rim and hit the three — where he shot 38 percent last season — Shayok is viewed by many as a potential breakout player.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins also figures to see more minutes to fill Atkins’ void. The 2014 Georgia Gatorade Player of the Year was third on the team with 18 blocks a year ago in limited minutes.
“I pride myself on energy and defense,” Wilkins said. “I just have to bring it every game — don’t take any plays off.”
Sophomore guards Devon Hall and Darius Thompson, a Tennessee-transfer, will also play into the backcourt rotation. Likewise, redshirt freshman center Jack Salt, Virginia’s most physical player, and freshman forward Jarred Reuter should also see minutes in the frontcourt.
With this talent combined with Bennett’s heralded pack-line defense, the Cavaliers will face an early-season test by playing arguably the nation’s most difficult out-of-conference schedule. In an effort to simulate postseason play, Virginia will face Ohio State, West Virginia, No. 11 Villanova and No. 14 California between Dec. 1 and Dec. 22.
“We decided to challenge ourselves,” Bennett said.
Virginia rose to No. 2 in the rankings last season, but was ultimately eliminated in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32 by Michigan State. Despite plenty of regular-season success the past few years, the NCAA tournament — and specifically the Spartans — have haunted the Cavaliers the past two seasons.
But with the leadership of four scholarship seniors and a cadre of underclassmen loaded with potential, Virginia is focused on advancing deeper into March. If the Cavaliers can replace Anderson and Atkins the way they replaced Harris and Mitchell, few teams will stand in their way.
“We know what it takes to get there [and] we know what it takes to go further,” Tobey said. “Once you get there, there’s no laziness to your mind or your game. Knowing that we’ve been there helps a lot.”
Virginia will open the season Friday against Morgan State at John Paul Jones Arena. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.