They are the defending Atlantic Coast Conference regular season champions, but graduation and attrition have left No. 25 Virginia with a big hill to climb.
Six of the top eight scorers off last year’s 18-7 team have moved on - four to likely professional careers and two that transferred within the conference.
It’s left coach Tony Bennett with a roster short on experience in the way the Cavaliers play, but, he hopes, with hungry players eager for their chance.
“There is a lot of newness and inexperience, but I think that’s the name of college basketball with the transfer portal,” Bennett said at ACC media day earlier this month, “… You’ve got some young men that they’ve been waiting their turn.”
Besides their top three scorers and occasional 3-point sniper Tomas Woldetensae, Bennett lost forward Justin McKoy as a transfer to North Carolina and guard Casey Morsell as a transfer to North Carolina State. Both would have likely been starters this season, or at least members of the regular rotation.
Fortunately for Bennett, point guard Kihei Clark is back for his senior season, and he’s already spent three with a leadership role by virtue of his position.
“I’m just trying to do a good job of leading those guys and then especially the new guys, the two transfers and then the freshmen coming in,” Clark said.
With Sam Hauser (16 ppg), Jay Huff (13 ppg) and Trey Murphy III (11.3 ppg), Clark (9.5 ppg) is the leading returning scorer. Sophomore Reece Beekman started 20 of 25 games last season and is next at just 4.7 ppg.
Some other things to watch at Virginia this year:
Trading McKoy and Morsell for senior Jayden Gardner from East Carolina and junior Armaan Franklin from Indiana provides a significant experience boost. Gardner, a bruising 6-foot-6, 240-pound forward, averaged 18.3 points and 8.3 rebounds last season. Franklin, a 6-5 guard, averaged 11.4 points in 20 starts.
Bennett‘s Pack-Line defense has become the Cavaliers’ calling card, but is challenging for newcomers to the system. That could make the addition of Franklin especially beneficial since the Hoosiers employ a version of it.
Virginia has won five of the last eight ACC regular season titles but is picked to finish fourth this year. In 12 of the last 13 seasons, the Cavaliers have finished at, or higher than, their projected finish as voted on by ACC media.
FANS IN THE STANDS
John Paul Jones Arena has become a very difficult place to play as the Cavaliers have climbed into the national elite, but very few on the roster have experienced a full house because of pandemic-related limitations last season.
“There’s such a level of excitement that was missing last year,” Bennett said.
The Cavaliers open against Navy on Nov. 9 and play at No. 15 Houston in their third game. They’ll play host to Iowa in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Nov. 29. ACC road games include visits to No. 9 Duke, No. 19 North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Notre Dame.
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