The Virginia squads all have reasons to move on from last year, though some are hoping to build off what they accomplished, while others would rather put the past away.
WASHINGTON — Welcome to the cordial commonwealth.
OK, so Virginia-Virginia Tech and Richmond-VCU aren’t exactly polite affairs. To the Cavaliers and Spiders, the Hokies and Rams will always represent the new kids on their respective conference block — even though Virginia Tech is the ninth-most senior member out of 15 ACC schools and VCU has dominated the A-10 since joining.
VCU and Richmond can show off their Cinderella runs, from the Spiders’ upset of Syracuse (first time ever a 15 seed beat a 2) to the Rams’ run from the “First Four” to the Final Four seven years ago. And the ACC duo can try to conceal scars from tournaments past, from the Hokies’ landing on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble four straight years to the Cavaliers’ loss as a 1 seed to 16-seed UMBC this past March (for those living under a rock, the first time that happened in the men’s tournament). It just gets fun when these schools play one another.
For those curious, the days of reckoning this winter are Jan. 19 in Charlotte, Feb. 18 in Blacksburg; Feb. 13 and March 2 in Richmond.
The Cavaliers bring back plenty of talent (not just one, but three players named preseason all-ACC); lofty expectations (ranked fifth nationally, including a pair of first-place votes); and the Elephant in the Room from this past March. U.Va.’s had March meltdowns in the past under coach Tony Bennett, but losing multiple times to Michigan State or slipping to a double-digit seeded Syracuse pales in comparison to coming undone in the second half to UMBC after entering the Big Dance as the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. You may have heard that a top seed had never lost to a 16 … until last year. So those ghosts will be looming in March.
Until then, Virginia has to compete in an ACC that boasts five other schools in the Top 25. Thank goodness they have Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter back. Guy — despite cutting his famed man bun — averaged 14 points while shooting 39 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore. Jerome led the Cavaliers with 20 points in their opening-night win over Towson while Hunter notched a double-double against the Tigers. Back for one more go-round is 6-foot-10-inch New Zealand enigma Jack Salt: The big man made 64 percent of his shots last winter, but committed 10 more personal fouls than he made baskets over the season.
The Hokies are coming off of consecutive NCAA tournament berths for the first time since 1986. They also begin the year ranked 15th, the school’s highest ranking since the 1995-1996 season. How huge is this turnaround that coach Buzz Williams has undertaken? Last year’s 10-8 ACC mark was the third straight year the Hokies had finished with double digits in conference wins — something that had never previously happened in program history. They reached postseason play perhaps a year early in 2016 and made the NCAA tournament a year before everyone thought they would the next March. Does this current team have what it takes to advance to the second weekend of the tournament?
Preseason all-ACC second-teamer Justin Robinson returns for his senior season. Last winter, he notched 20 points and 7 assists in the Hokies’ 61-60 overtime win at Virginia. Six-foot-10-inch forward Kerry Blackshear (13 points and 6 rebounds per game as a sophomore) looks to be the main threat inside; he’ll need to take a bigger role on the boards as returning leading rebounder Chris Clarke was suspended indefinitely from the team last week. That vacuum might mean bigger things sooner for four-star recruit Landers Nolley II.
Head coach Mike Rhoades’ first season was rather un-Ramish. For the first time since 2000 (and their days in the CAA), VCU did not post a winning conference record. Instead of playing for an Atlantic 10 tournament championship like they had the previous five years they were in the league, the Rams and their throng of fans headed home from Capital One Arena Friday afternoon following a loss in the quarterfinals. VCU was picked to finish seventh in the Atlantic 10. That’s not as bad as it sounds when one realizes there are 14 schools in the A-10, but nowhere near what this program is accustomed to.
Isaac Vonn had 16 points with 8 rebounds in the Rams’ 69-57 season-opening win over Gardner-Webb. Mike’L Simms was the only other player to score in double figures. Six-foot-six guard Vince Williams could be the impact player needed if VCU is going to play its way back to the Atlantic 10’s top tier and return to forcing its fans to stay in Brooklyn (site of this year’s A-10 Tournament) into the weekend.
The Spiders also had an off year, in a much more drastic fashion than their crosstown rivals. The first losing campaign in 11 years saw a nightmarish 2-10 start only matched in surprise by a 9-9 league finish. But Chris Mooney’s team beat VCU twice and was also the last local (GW, GMU and VCU) school standing when they gave St. Bonaventure all they could handle in Friday’s A-10 quarterfinal. Not that that sort of thing doesn’t get noticed in the commonwealth’s capital.
First Team All-Atlantic 10 center Grant Golden is back. The junior posted a double-double in an overtime loss to Georgetown — the Spiders visit the Hoyas Nov. 28. Jacob Gilyard is the primary triggerman in the motion offense, while junior Nick Sherod went from 8 to 14 points per game last winter and will be a factor on the perimeter this season.
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