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Men’s basketball opens season ranked eighth in the nation

New wave of young talent looks to replace graduates Brogdon, Gill

<p>Junior forward Austin Nichols' suspension is one of many offseason distractions casting a shadow over Virginia's season opener.&nbsp;</p>

Junior forward Austin Nichols' suspension is one of many offseason distractions casting a shadow over Virginia's season opener. 

It hasn’t been the smoothest of lead-ins to the 2016-17 Virginia basketball season. On Sept. 29, senior point guard London Perrantes’ and junior guard Marial Shayok’s pictures of Cavalier players kneeling for inequality and injustice circulated on Twitter, which regardless of intent, caused a media distraction.

Then one month later, reported coach Tony Bennett had suspended star junior forward Austin Nichols for a “violation of team rules.” Nichols missed the final week of the preseason, and Virginia fans who have anxiously awaited his debut will have to wait longer. He’s out for the team’s season opener Friday at UNC Greensboro.

Two days after the news on Nichols, the Cavalier program announced a joint evaluation by the University and the NCAA had determined redshirt freshman forward Mamadi Diakite would also have to sit out the team’s first game due to “amateurism” issues. Diakite will remain in Charlottesville this weekend.

If the past few weeks are any indication, there’s an unpredictability about Bennett’s team this season not only off the hardwood but also on it. This isn’t one of those veteran groups led by Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey, which treated Virginia fans to even-keeled consistency over the past two seasons. This feels like a new wave.

“That’s part of the resetting, and it’s exciting,” Bennett said. “We’re going to see some of these young guys grow up before our very eyes, over the course of their careers. But in the immediate and the now, there’s some big questions to be answered.”

With their top two scorers from 2015-16 in Brogdon and Gill gone, the preseason No. 8 Cavaliers will have to find new ways to score the basketball. The team’s only senior on scholarship, Perrantes, is the obvious answer. As has been the trend over the last two years, Virginia will rely on the Los Angeles, Ca. native to be even more aggressive on the offensive end of the floor this season.

“It’s always a little different when defenses gear themselves to stop you,” Bennett said. “I think London has worked hard to try to develop some things to be ready for that. But he doesn’t seem to lose often who he is as a player. That’s one of his best qualities without a doubt.”

Bennett understands his offense has to be more than a one man show, though. Over the offseason, he and his staff pressed returners to improve their games in designated areas, whether it be junior forward Isaiah Wilkins’ jumper from the free-throw line extended, Shayok’s ball handling or junior guard Devon Hall’s shot from behind the arc.

“I think our players are eager, because they know what they’re having to replace,” Bennett said. “And I think a lot of people are saying, ‘How are you gonna?’ And fair question, but this is their time. You become an upperclassman … That’s what we’re banking on.”

Four true freshmen join the Cavalier ranks this season. Point guard Kyle Guy, guard Deandre Hunter, shooting guard Ty Jerome and forward Jay Huff make up Bennett’s highest-rated recruiting class — No. 13 according to — while at Virginia. No matter how skilled they are, it will take time for those four to adapt to Bennett’s system and the physical college game.

“They’re coming along for sure,” Perrantes said. “A pack-line defense is not easy to get. And you could see from when they first got here that they have made big jumps on the defensive end. And we know offensively how capable they are.”

The pair of Cavaliers who have to sit out Friday’s opener are new pieces too. Last year, Diakite enrolled early at the University but chose to redshirt, enabling him to spend his waking hours in the weight room. Diakite figures to be a contributor in the frontcourt this season given his length, bounce and versatility.

Nichols transferred from Memphis after a 2014-2015 season in which he averaged 13.3 points and ranked third nationally with 3.4 blocked shots per game. He also redshirted last season, all the while battling Gill in practice and meshing with his floor general Perrantes.

“[Austin] is very athletic. He affects a lot of shots defensively around the rim, which is going to be huge for us,” Perrantes said. “If we get beat, we have someone on that back line. He can shoot the ball mid-range and three sometimes as well. He can finish with both hands pretty well. It’ll be exciting to be out there with him.”

Without all of its weapons, Virginia should still be able to take care of business against UNC Greensboro, a program that finished sixth in the Southern Conference with a record of 15-19 a season ago. But for the remainder of the season, the Cavaliers cannot afford to lose key players to poor choices or injury.

Virginia’s non-conference slate includes home games against Iowa, Ohio State and No. 20 West Virginia and road matchups with reigning champion No. 4 Villanova and California. Factor into that their ACC docket, and the Cavaliers have arguably the toughest schedule in college basketball.

“Of course, it has to be tough,” Diakite said. “I don’t really even know the schedule very well. All I’m trying to do is take care of every day. Each day we’re trying to get better as much as we can. We’re coming from far away, and we still have a long path to go.”

Tipoff between Virginia and UNC-Greensboro is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Greensboro Coliseum.