WASHINGTON — It’s nothing novel to say that Virginia and Virginia Tech are completely different schools, with men’s basketball programs and coaches that couldn’t be less similar. I even stated so right here last year. This season, the Cavaliers and Hokies once again operate from different perspectives and with different expectations. So let’s enjoy a glass of Commonwealth college hoops. How does your glass appear?
Virginia Tech’s glass is half-full. Buzz Williams enters year three with high hopes, as last winter saw a five-game winning streak to end the regular season, followed by a trip to the NIT. Where college hoops’ “other tournament” once represented the purgatory Seth Greenberg’s program was banished to (thanks to a combination of poor nonconference scheduling or bad league losses), the NIT was pure heaven for the Hokies. Even with an unbalanced league schedule, 10 ACC wins were more than the program had in the previous three seasons combined. Wins over top 10 teams like No. 7 Miami to end the regular season and a home triumph over No. 4 Virginia provided hope for a roster that returns seven of its top eight players.
Picked to finish 10th in the ACC, you say? Tell that to senior Zach LeDay (16 points and 8 rebounds per game) who will be joined by his twin brother Seth (19 points and 8 rebounds per game at Northwest Mississippi Community College) this winter. Senior Seth Allen (15 points per game) and junior Justin Biggs (45 percent from three-point range) will provide perimeter threats. The next step is out there to be made for this team … and even if it means fewer wins in arguably the toughest conference in the country, the Hokie faithful are optimistic that better days are ahead.
The nonconference highlights come in dates with Michigan and Ole Miss — one school likely to be competing for an NCAA bid and the other looking to return to the tournament after rebuilding. The conference schedule appears favorable, with home-and-away-series against Miami (picked ninth), Clemson (11th) and Boston College (15th). The Cavaliers come to Cassell Coliseum Feb. 12, but do the Hokies dare dream of beating UVa in Charlottesville Feb. 1? It’s morning in Blacksburg…
Virginia’s glass? Half-empty. Yes, they won 29 games last year against the toughest schedule in the nation (according to teamrankings.com) and grabbed another No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But their March ended in a Regional Finals collapse for the ages. After the recent success the program has had under coach Tony Bennett, it’s easy for the Cavaliers faithful to focus on what isn’t, as opposed to what is. Instead of the first-ever unbeaten (15-0) season inside John Paul Jones Arena (and first unblemished campaign at home since 1981-82), the Cavaliers’ 4-5 ACC road record gets trotted out, including that — gulp — loss to the Hokies. Instead of celebrating the fantastic careers of building blocks Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, UVa laments that the duo depart Charlottesville without returning the program to the Final Four.
Thank goodness catalyst London Perrantes returns. The senior led the team in assists and steals last winter and was a deadly 49 percent from three-point range. Who steps up from supporting player to primary contributor? Isaiah Wilkins and Memphis transfer Austin Nichols are expected to provide presence in the post, while juniors Devon Hall, Darius Thompson and Marial Shayok will compete for minutes on the wings. Can McDonald’s All-American guard Kyle Guy show enough defensively to coach Bennett to merit the minutes to showcase his offensive abilities?
Nonconference games with Iowa, Ohio State, West Virginia and Cal will test the Cavaliers early and often before league play opens at Louisville Dec. 28. UVa gets two games with the nationally ranked Cardinals…just as they face preseason No. 6 North Carolina twice. They catch a break by playing Pitt (and new head coach Kevin Stallings) twice, as the Panthers are picked to finish 12th in the ACC, despite returning four starters from last year’s NCAA Tournament team. Tough league, indeed.