WASHINGTON — Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The ACC is loaded again this winter. Five of the top 16 schools in both polls reside in that league. And it’s not just the traditional blue bloods Duke and North Carolina — Miami, Notre Dame and Louisville also promise to make the conference campaign a gauntlet for the other 10 schools. Two of those schools reside in the Commonwealth and are also receiving votes this November.
Virginia is coming off a 23-11 campaign and the departure of London Perrantes. The centerpiece of the Cavaliers’ resurgence under coach Tony Bennett started 134 games and scored 1,225 points in a career that included a pair of 30-win seasons and No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, an ACC Championship and one trip to the Regional Finals. Last winter, it felt like UVA was “London and four guys from the Y,” especially when they hit the midseason wall and lost six of eight. Three other pieces of the rotation (Marial Shayok, Darius Thompson and Jarred Reuter) transferred in the offseason, but there are plenty of contributors coming back from the team that allowed the fewest points per game in Division I last winter.
Senior forward Isaiah Wilkins has increased his productivity in the paint every season he’s been in Charlottesville and senior guard Devon Hall has developed into a fantastic perimeter defender while being able to initiate the offense when needed. Guard Kyle Guy made almost 50 percent of his three-pointers as a freshman with the most popular hairstyle in the college game. Hopefully Guy’s cutting of the infamous man bun won’t have Samson-like ramifications to his shooting touch. Jack Salt is from New Zealand and the 6-foot-10 center’s play resembles that of a Shiraz from down under: plenty of boldness and unpredictability, as just once in ACC play last winter did Salt post more field goals than personal fouls. Seven-footer Jay Huff has gained 30 pounds after redshirting last season; he’ll get every chance to compete for minutes.
The Cavaliers pull no punches in November and December, visiting VCU and No. 11 West Virginia while facing Vanderbilt in the NIT Season Tip-Off Thanksgiving Day. They won’t play North Carolina or Duke twice in ACC play — once is more than enough for most programs anyway. It’s not the ACC opener, but circle January 3rd on your calendar as the Cavaliers visit Virginia Tech—they’ve lost two straight in Blacksburg.
Virginia Tech enters year four under coach Buzz Williams. The Hokies were perhaps a year ahead of schedule last March when they made their first NCAA Tournament since 2007. Technically, 77 percent of last year’s starts were made by returning players, but their top two scorers last winter were seniors Zack LeDay and Seth Allen, who primarily came off the bench. Who fills the void? Junior Chris Clarke is recovering from a torn ACL; he was the best rebounder on a team that was near the bottom of the ACC on the glass. Redshirt freshman Kerry Blackshear, Jr. missed last season with nagging shin injury, but if he’s back at full-strength the 6-foot-10 forward will provide production in the post. While senior Justin Robinson’s sturdy hand steers the Hokies offense, freshman Nickiell Alexander-Walker started the preseason exhibition against South Carolina and led the team in scoring.
The Hokies’ pre-conference slate includes battles with Ole Miss and Iowa … and a trip to preseason No. 5 Kentucky. The league schedule is no kinder: in addition to playing Virginia twice, Tech gets two games each with Louisville, Miami and Duke. Once again we return to the Blue Devils.