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Men’s basketball readies for home opener

Nichols, Diakite to make Cavalier debuts against St. Francis Brooklyn

<p>Sophomore forward Mamadi Diakite anchored the Cavaliers' defense, tallying four blocks to propel the JPJ crowd into a frenzy time and again.&nbsp;</p>

Sophomore forward Mamadi Diakite anchored the Cavaliers' defense, tallying four blocks to propel the JPJ crowd into a frenzy time and again. 

John Paul Jones Arena was good to the Virginia men’s basketball team a season ago, as coach Tony Bennett’s team joined Oregon, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana and California as one of only six high-major programs to go unbeaten at home. The Cavaliers finished 15-0 on their court, with marquee wins over eventual national champion Villanova, California, Louisville and ACC tournament champion and NCAA runner-up North Carolina.

Fresh off its 76-51 victory at UNC-Greensboro, No. 8 Virginia (1-0) awaits its 2016-17 home opener Tuesday night against St. Francis Brooklyn (0-1).

The Terriers are coming off an 86-61 loss at North Carolina State, in which they shot just 33.9 percent from the floor and relied heavily on their backcourt to carry the offensive load. Sophomore guard Glenn Sanabria finished with a team-high 14 points but wasn’t very efficient, hitting on 4-of-13 attempts from the floor. Senior guard Yunus Hopkinson added 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting, while junior guard Gunnar Olafsson chipped in eight points and a game-high nine rebounds.

St. Francis Brooklyn’s starting big man, 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Joshua Nurse, played only five minutes, tallying two points and one rebound. Coach Glenn Braica subbed in 6-foot-6 freshman forward Robert Montgomery for Nurse less than two minutes into the contest. Montgomery recorded four points and two rebounds over 20 minutes of action.

Had the Terriers taken on the Cavaliers last week, they wouldn’t have faced quite the matchup nightmare in the post that they’ll face Tuesday. Sophomore center Jack Salt and sophomore forward Jarred Reuter work hard, rebound and use their big frames well, but they aren’t nearly the scoring threats nor fluid athletes junior forward Austin Nichols and redshirt freshman forward Mamadi Diakite are.

After sitting out the UNC-Greensboro game — Nichols, for a violation of team rules, and Diakite, for a review of amateur status — the two 6-foot-9 forwards are set to make their respective Virginia debuts against an undersized, thin St. Francis Brooklyn frontcourt.

When asked how the additions might change the look of his rotation going forward, Bennett shook his head.

“That remains to be seen. It’ll be how guys practice, how they perform, just how they’re looking,” Bennett said. “Obviously Mamadi and Austin bring some things to the table, but I thought Isaiah and Jack and Jared did a nice job. … There’s some quality depth there.”

Junior forward Isaiah Wilkins owns his workmanlike role at the four, and, with 10 points and nine boards versus the Spartans, showed even more upside. His spot remains secure. If Nichols is out of the doghouse for whatever mistake he made at the end of preseason ball, there’s little doubt he’ll start at the five Tuesday for the Cavaliers.

The transfer from Memphis who redshirted last season, maturing in the system, is a rare talent. Nichols hasn’t participated in a game since the 2014-15 season, yet projects him as the 46th overall pick off his track record alone.

Nichols led the Tigers in scoring his sophomore year at 13.3 points per game and ranked third nationally in blocked shots at 3.4 per game.

“Austin is gifted. He’s unbelievable,” Diakite said. “He’s a great guy, off and on the court. Of course, on the court, he’s a beast. He finishes. He’s really good around the rim, and he knows the game really well. I’m trying to learn as much as I can from him before he leaves here.”

Diakite should provide a lift off the bench, along with junior guard Marial Shayok. The Ottawa, Ontario native, who started in eight games last season averaging 4.3 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game, was Bennett’s first substitution into the UNC-Greensboro game.

“He gave us a spark,” Bennett said. “Marial could start. You could make a case, and this will all evolve. But right now, that’s one thing I challenged Marial [to be]. I said just let’s be a sixth man that comes off and gives us some energy.”

Bolstered by reserve pieces like Shayok and freshman guard Kyle Guy, the Cavaliers have exceptional, deep guard play.

Junior guard Darius Thompson has always shown an ability to slash and finish at the rim, but hasn’t been a consistent jump shooter. His offseason work appeared to pay off Friday, as Thompson totaled 12 points, draining 3-of-4 three pointers and throwing down a mean one-handed dunk in transition.

Junior guard Devon Hall is a physical, tall guard listed at 6-foot-5 who can bring the ball up the court when needed, draw fouls at the rim and knock down the occasional perimeter look. Hall rebounds well for his position and also has what it takes to become a lockdown defender in Bennett’s pack-line.

Then, of course, there’s senior guard London Perrantes, one of the top point guards in all of college basketball. Perrantes flaunts quick hands on defense, a pure stroke from outside, and creative finishes in traffic. Even when he’s somewhat passive on offense, as was the case in his 10-point performance against UNC-Greensboro, Perrantes runs the show for Virginia.

“We’ve been competing really hard, from the young guys to the older guys,” Perrantes said. “We definitely have a lot of pieces. Like you said, it’s just being able to finally gel. It may take some time, but I feel like it will come.”

Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at John Paul Jones Arena. The game will be aired on the ACC Sports Network.