In Virginia’s win against the No. 5 Tar Heels Monday night, the Cavaliers started the game in a four-guard lineup. Perhaps this was coach Tony Bennett simply out-coaching North Carolina’s Roy Williams, as the Cavaliers pulled out the surprising upset. Or rather, maybe that starting-five was the inevitable outcome of a situation Bennett has dealt with all season — a dearth of big men.
Give credit to junior guard Devon Hall, who showed his versatility matching up against 6-foot-9 senior forward Isaiah Hicks in the post to start the game. But that wasn’t Virginia’s ideal lineup. Far from it, actually, as the Cavaliers started the game by falling behind 7-0. No, Bennett’s preferred lineup would have involved someone not currently on the team — Austin Nichols.
Anyone who follows Virginia men’s basketball knows the story. Nichols, the talented Memphis-transfer, played just one game for the Cavaliers before Bennett dismissed him from the team Nov. 18. After sitting out the 2015-16 season per NCAA transfer rules, he was also suspended for the team’s two preseason scrimmages and the opener against UNC-Greensboro.
The Athletics Department chose not to disclose the circumstances of the junior’s dismissal, instead only providing a brief statement from Bennett in the release.
“It’s a privilege to be a part of this program and Austin has lost that privilege,” Bennett said. “We have standards for our student-athletes and when those standards aren’t met, there are consequences and this is the unfortunate consequence.”
The Nichols loss sent shockwaves across the program in planning for next season. Currently, Virginia is competing with 12 scholarship players — one less than the NCAA Division I maximum of 13. Senior guard London Perrantes’ scholarship will be replaced by incoming freshman guard Marco Anthony next season, but that still leaves one open spot remaining.
Although it seems far-fetched, a Nichols return to the team next season might not be as improbable as many would initially believe. It takes two sides to make a deal, and both Virginia and Nichols stand to benefit from a return.
In Virginia’s case, Bennett clearly wasn’t happy with the way Nichols carried himself off of the court. Neither were his teammates, judging by the lack of public comments or social media posts following Bennett’s announcement. Nichols never made a public statement and did not respond to multiple requests to comment on this story.
But, his absence in the post has clearly played a huge role in Virginia’s struggles this year. Of Virginia’s nine losses this season, five have been by six points or fewer and three have gone into overtime or double overtime. Having Nichols on the floor likely could have swung the pendulum in Virginia’s favor in many of those losses.
To compensate, Bennett has frequently employed four-guard lineups like he did against North Carolina Monday. He predicted he would do this after defeating Yale Nov. 20 — the first game after Nichols’ dismissal.
“We will see all different kinds of teams and we will just have to be ready for it, and will probably at times have to look at playing four guards,” Bennett said. “That presents some challenges for sure, but we’ll just keep adjusting.”
He definitely has tried to adjust, with mixed results. But the question becomes whether Bennett is patient enough to keep adjusting next season.
Both junior forward Isaiah Wilkins and redshirt freshman forward Mamadi Diakite might continue to improve their offensive games, but neither is a true back-to-the-basket type of player. And given their performances this season, it would be foolish to expect any huge improvement from sophomore center Jack Salt or sophomore forward Jarred Reuter.
Bennett has no clear leads on bringing in another freshman. And with 93 of the ESPN top-100 already committed or signed, it seems unlikely any immediate help would be provided anyway.
The graduate transfer market is tough to predict, but would any player in his final year of eligibility want to commit to learning the pack line defense? Even if he did, his impact would be minimal. Landing an underclassman big man in the transfer market certainly couldn’t hurt, but it would not improve Virginia’s dilemma next year.
Bennett already made his stamp by dismissing Nichols from the team. Perhaps he could be forgiving after the season.
For Nichols — who is still enrolled at Virginia as an undergraduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences — the benefits of a return would be immense. If he planned to play professionally, he likely would be training, not still in school.
But as a transfer prospect, few teams would want to assume the baggage Nichols brings with him. Only TCU has been linked as a potential landing spot for Nichols, which came in a single tweet Dec. 7 by ESPN recruiting insider Jeff Borzello. No coach wants to bring in a player he cannot trust, especially when that player is a graduate transfer who has played just one game over the past two seasons.
At the moment, this discussion is speculative, and still, the most likely scenario is Nichols transfers elsewhere — it’d be tough to go back to a coach who publicly shamed him. Meanwhile, Bennett will probably look to the transfer market and endure similar struggles next season.
But until the Athletics Department or Nichols comment otherwise, all options are on the table. This would be a pretty good one for both parties.
Robert Elder was the 127th Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @R_F_D_E.