CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Tony Bennett highlighted Virginia's youth when looking ahead to this season, and it is a level of inexperience that may challenge the defense-first foundation the coach has been building with the Cavaliers.
Virginia not only lost its leader in point guard London Perrantes to graduation, but had two experienced guards — Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson — decide to transfer. Their absences will especially be felt on defense, but both scored in stretches, too.To fill the void, the Cavaliers added speedy point guard Nigel Johnson as a graduate transfer from Rutgers, and two freshmen who sat out a year ago. The additions to the lineup of may have played a role in the decisions by Shayok and Thompson to transfer.
"There have been some practices where I've really liked — it's early — but where I've said, 'Boy, we have a chance to be pretty darn good,'" said Bennett, entering his ninth season at Virginia. "And then there's some practices where I say, 'We got a ways to go.' Now I think most college coaches would be saying that right now, but there is uncertainty.
"We're going to need some of those guys who got experience in their first year to be thrown into bigger roles."
And two players who have no experience, but are heralded as having huge upsides, to be ready to contribute, too.
De'Andre Hunter, 6-foot-7, is one of the tallest guards the Cavaliers have ever had and can score and rebound, and 7-1 Jay Huff is a "stretch four" who can shoot from the perimeter but also draw attention in the low post and either score or kick the ball out.
Returning shooters include sophomores Kyle Guy (51 3s, .495 percentage) and Ty Jerome (29 3s, .397), who join fifth-year senior guard and tri-captain Devon Hall (32 3s, .372) as proven scorers. None of them, however, and only Perrantes averaged in double figures.
"The coaches have really been on me to be more assertive, to be more aggressive in all layers of the offense," said Guy, whose fast start and man bun made him an instant favorite last year, "but it's 3s and getting to the basket and getting fouled. So I'm just going to keep doing what they tell me to do."
The defense will be anchored by senior forward Isaiah Wilkins and redshirt junior center Jack Salt. The Cavaliers hope the big wingspan of Huff will bolster the interior defense and afford some protection in the paint, and that Johnson's speed will give opposing guards fits.
Here are some other things to watch with Virginia this year:
TOE THE LINE: The Cavaliers were outscored by 55 points at the free throw line a year ago, and they attempted 85 fewer shots from there. In some games, the disparity proved the difference between winning and losing, and there's been emphasis on changing that trend.
STEADY HALL: Devon Hall has paid his dues and now finds himself with the keys to the car, so to speak, as the backcourt veteran. He can be a dynamic scorer at times, and a slashing driver to the basket, but he's unlikely to be the first option when the Cavaliers need a big shot. Despite Guy's uncanny percentage from beyond the arc (he was 51 of 103), the crunch time player may be Jerome, who ignored his freshman status and took, and made, several shots in big moments last year.
AS ADVERTISED? Huff has been the most talked about newcomer for the Cavaliers, and upped the ante when he added the names Kevin Durant and Frank Kaminski to that of Dirk Nowitzki, the player many immediately compare him to because of their size and abilities. But Huff will be asked to be less like those guys and more a sorely needed presence in the paint for this team, and he'll need to adapt.
SPEED THINGS UP? The Cavaliers have been described as "boring" by many because of their attention to defense and methodical offense, and that may be forced to change if all the newcomers can't lock down on defense like Bennett expects. Johnson could be key to speeding things up to produce more easy scoring.
CHIPPY: Wilkins, one of the other tri-captains, doesn't believe lower expectations for the Cavs is disappointing. "I think that's when it's most fun, right. You can go out there and play pretty free, try to show people what we've got and make some noise. Hopefully we can do that."