CHARLOTTESVILLE–Virginia basketball is 9-1 in season openers under coach Tony Bennett and has started with a victory the past six years in a row. Of course, in that time, they’ve never had an opening opponent like Syracuse.
The move to a 20-game conference schedule, combined with the new ACC Network’s need for content, means 14 teams will play league opponents to start their season on Tuesday and Wednesday, a slate that sends No. 11 UVA – the reigning NCAA national champions – on the road to face the Orange.
“You’re preparing for a really good opponent,” said Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett, whose only loss in a season opener came at George Mason in 2012. “We’ve started on the road before with teams, but not in a conference game. So the newness of that, and I think, the newness of our team, those two provide for a lot of uncertainty.”
Indeed, the biggest names from UVA’s national title run – Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome – all headed to the NBA, leaving Bennett with his most challenging roster rebuild since his early years in Charlottesville.
Instead of a guard-driven lineup that could shoot 3-pointers, the team that will seek to defend the title appears, on paper, at least, to be front-court based, a bigger lineup led by preseason all-ACC selection Mamadi Diakite at forward.
Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone only complicates things for Wednesday night’s opener. The unconventional defense makes scoring in the paint difficult and essentially dares opponents to hit shots from the outside.
When Virginia visited the Carrier Dome last year, it went 18 for 25 from 3-point range, with all 18 makes coming from Guy, Hunter and Jerome.
The question Wednesday is, how will this year’s version of the Cavaliers score against Syracuse.
Here are five more questions about the defending champions going into this season:
1) How different will the offense look without the Big 3? The short answer, going into the year, appears to be “very.” Guy, Hunter and Jerome combined to score 1,667 of the team’s 2,714 points last season. And they did it, very often by shooting from beyond the 3-point arc. Virginia hit 39.5 percent of its 813 shots from 3 last year, with much of that production coming from the same trio of guards.
Returning point guard Kihei Clark is a quick and heady player, but he’s not a big-time scorer, meaning Virginia will likely want to play through Diakite in the paint. Wing Braxton Key and forward Jay Huff both have more to their offensive games then they’ve shown, and junior college transfer Tomas Woldetensae could provide the team with the missing outside shooting.
But the Cavaliers may be hard-pressed to average the 71 points per game they put up last season.
2) Which role player will make the biggest jump this season? Diakite is certainly the focal point of this team as a returning starter (and the guy who’s miracle buzzer beater against Purdue kept the championship run alive). But Key has a chance to become a star for UVA, now with an expanded role.
The Alabama transfer played just under 20 minutes per game coming off the bench last season, averaging 5.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. He’s an athletic and adept defender who seems to grasp the team’s defense, and has the athleticism to take advantage of various match ups on the court.
Back at Alabama, he was a two-year starter who averaged a team-high 12 points per game as a freshman. He may get the chance to play that kind of a role again this season for the Cavaliers.
3) Can this new-look lineup master the Pack-Line fast enough? The thing that’s made UVA into a national power has been Bennett’s signature defensive scheme. Virginia again led the nation in scoring defense last year, allowing just 56.1 points per outing. This year, the team will be relying on a host of newcomers and some returners – like Huff – who had still not fully mastered playing the Pack-line.
Bennett won’t play players who can’t execute on that end of the floor, so how quickly freshman like Casey Morsell can ‘get it’ may determine who quickly this team progresses.
4) Where will the toughness come from? The Big 3 grabbed all the headlines, but it was the team’s lone senior who really brought that physical element to Virginia’s game. Jack Salt was known for setting crushing screens, blocking shots and muscling for rebounds. With Salt gone, can UVA find the toughness needed to win night in and night out in the ACC.
Diakite is a skilled rim protector and rebounder, but with just 224 pounds spread over his 6-foot-9 frame, he’s no bruiser.
The team’s best bets for toughness in the paint may be 7-foot Argentinean Francisco Caffaro, who redshirted last season, and 6-8 true freshman Justin McKoy.
5) Is this finally Huff’s year? Fans have been teased and tantalized by the 7-foot-1 junior year’s offensive capabilities for going on four years now. His thunderous dunks and 3-point range make him intriguing. His defensive assignment issues, however, have been hard to ignore, despite his highlight shot-blocking ability.
Could this be the season it all comes together for Huff?