Last season is over and for reasons good and bad Virginia would do well to remember it.
The fifth-ranked Cavaliers rose to No. 1 in the nation by the end of the season and went into the NCAA Tournament is the favorite to win it all. Instead, they made tournament history as the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round.
This year’s roster is filled with players from that team, and the sting of that defeat still resonates.
“I think for me, it’s never forgetting it, but definitely trying to move past it to where I’m not hanging my head on it,” scoring leader Kyle Guy (14.1 ppg) said. “I think it’s taken me a little bit longer than some of the other guys, but that’s just because I’m an emotional kid and I’m real passionate about things. That cut me real deep.”
One sports bromide says that each team is a new team, and coach Tony Bennett said it’s important for this year’s group to take that to heart. He does not want this group to allow itself to be defined by the loss, or to forget that the crushing 74-54 loss to UMBC was just their third in 34 games.
“So many people want to say, ‘Well, okay, you’ve got to get back, you’ve got to vindicate yourself or validate that, you know, what happened’ — no,” he said, referencing a letter he received in the offseason. “This is about us running to the starting line of the season and taking it absolutely as far as we can possibly go, and it’s about growing from last year’s unbelievable success and growing from last year’s very humbling loss, and using it to help us respond and be better.”
The Cavaliers lost guard Devon Hall and defensive stalwart Isaiah Wilkins off last year’s team, but return plenty of talent to be ACC title contenders.
It’s a group which, because of Bennett’s defense-first philosophy, is sometimes labeled boring, but one the coach wouldn’t trade.
“They are so much better than people give them credit for, and they develop,” he said. “And then a willingness to know, you’ve got to go get it. It’s we don’t think we are better than we are. We don’t think we’re worse than we are. We just show up and try to be as good as we can and use the experiences that have happened.”
And last year? It’s all about perspective, he said.
“We know that’s going to be in our face how that ended, but it was historic in terms of the success that was taken from it,” he said.
Here are some other things to watch with Virginia this season:
TY AND GUY
The backcourt duo of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy will be one of the nation’s best, with each able to carry the offense at times. Guy has a sniper’s fast release, and Jerome (10.6 ppg) runs the offense with a foxhole-tough mentality. When they are going well, offense gets easier for everyone else, too.
Alabama transfer Braxton Key has been cleared to play right away and will be a huge addition if he can back to his freshman level of play. He averaged 12 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists that year before his numbers fell off after a knee injury last season. At 6-foot-8, his rebounding from the guard spot will be needed.
HUNTING FOR SHOTS
De’Andre Hunter returns from a debut season as the ACC’s sixth man of the year, but one that ended with a wrist injury that kept him out of the NCAA Tournament. He’s 6-7, took and made a game-winning shot against Louisville last season and may be the biggest lock for an NBA future on the roster.
JUMPING JACK FLASH
Big man Jack Salt may be the most maligned player by fans for is sometimes clumsy way, but he’s one of the most appreciated by Bennett. Salt rarely fills a stat sheet (career highs are 10 points and nine rebounds), but he fills the intangible sheet with rugged defense, bone-jarring screens and all the little things.
In 6-9 Mamadi Diakite and 7-foot Jay Huff, the Cavaliers have two players with huge upsides but much work to do. Diakite is already a crowd favorite for high-flying dunks and blocks, and Huff causes a stir for his outside skills as a big man, and significant steps forward would help greatly, especially in the always rugged ACC.
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