Cruising the Commonwealth: Virginia, Virginia Tech men’s basketball previews

Virginia and Virginia Tech have played each other twice every winter since the Hokies joined the ACC. For the most part, they’ve led separate lives.

Since the league expanded to 15 teams in 2014, the Hokies have finished higher than seventh place just once, while the Cavaliers have finished first or second on the league on six of those seven seasons (and have finished no lower than fifth).

The Cavaliers’ likely question is which seed they’ll get in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, while the Hokies are wondering if they have what it takes to reach the National Invitation Tournament, let alone the big dance. Such is our tale of two programs in the Commonwealth.

Virginia wrapped up the 2019-20 regular season as hot as any team in the country with eight straight wins and a 23-7 record. They return five of seven players who averaged 20 or more minutes per game, but Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key will both be missed.

“Let’s just start from a defensive standpoint. Mamadi could control the game with shot-blocking, quickness, guarding multiple positions and cover up a lot mistakes, and Braxton too. Those guys could really get on the glass, offensive and defensive,” head coach Tony Bennett said on Media Day.

“Those are big losses; I can see that we don’t have replacements for them. But we’re going to have to do it collectively and certain guys are going to have to step up.”

The Cavaliers will be bolstered by transfer Sam Hauser. The 6-foot-8 senior averaged 15 points with seven rebounds in his final season at Marquette and is a Preseason First Team All-ACC selection.

“Sam has the ability to play some four, perhaps some three,” Bennett said. “With Jay (Huff) you can space the floor on offense with some shooting and let some of your perimeter players touch the paint.”

But Hauser knows that defense is the staple in Charlottesville, and that was his primary focus last winter.

“Coming in I was OK — and I think I’ve developed a little bit into a better defender,” Hauser said. “If I want to play here, I’m going to have to be able to play some defense. So I took that personally and individually to get better on it and I think I have.”

Hauser’s addition to the mix will help with the continued emergence of Jay Huff. The 7-foot-1 Durham native enjoyed a coming-out party against Duke (15 points, 9 rebounds, and 10 blocks) last winter, and the rich man’s Jack Salt after testing the NBA waters is back for one more go-round.

“We’ve been working on some things that allow me to space the floor a little bit more and then we’re also working on stuff that you know I get shots at the rim and in the post,” Huff said. “I think it’ll be a little bit of a mix, which is kind of what it was last year.”

Rice transfer Trey Murphy III (14 points with six rebounds per game for the Owls last winter) will provide frontcourt depth, while the offense is in the hands of third-year guard Kihei Clark who finished third in the ACC in assists last season.

Tomas Woldetensae and Kody Stattman (hands down one of the best names in the college game) both started games last year. The newest crop of Cavaliers is led by four-star recruit Jabri Abdur-Rahim (son of former NBAer Shareef). It’s now up to the coach to find his rotation.

“I don’t know what the ideal number is. I’ve played at times nine or 10, sometimes we’ve gone to eight or 7 1/2 in different years,” Bennett said. “It’s all what guys can handle, how you’re looking, the competition. I’d be foolish to try to say I have a set number. It’s too hard to say and again a lot will evolve.”

The Cavaliers are favored to win the ACC for the first time since the 1982-83 season and begin the year ranked No. 4 (their highest preseason ranking since they started the ’82-83 campaign number one) in both polls. But for the program, slowly constructed and since sustained in Charlottesville, it’s business as usual.

“I mean it feels nice but we know it doesn’t really mean much,” Kihei Clark said. “When it’s time to step on the floor rankings don’t really matter. It’s just whoever plays better that day, so you still have to prepare the right way.”

Virginia Tech finished 16-16 and 7-13 in the ACC during Mike Young’s first season, falling in the First Round of the ACC Tournament to North Carolina. If the NCAA Tournament had been played, they would have missed it for the first time since 2016 — Buzz Williams’ second season in Blacksburg that ended with a trip to the NIT.

While this team has been picked to finish 11th in the league, there’s a sense of getting things in the right direction that a coach has entering his second winter at a school.

“We are better. How much better I’m not sure yet,” Young said. “I think appreciably, simply because we’re bigger and stronger and can beat you in more ways.

While last year’s leading scorer Landers Nolley II transferred to Memphis, five of Young’s seven players who saw more than 18 minutes per game are back. And that starts with Tyrece Radford; as a redshirt freshman the 6-foot-2 guard averaged 10 points per game while leading the Hokies in rebounding. He’ll be joined in the backcourt by senior Wabissa Bede (his 177 assists last winter were third-most in program history) and Naheiem Alleyne (who started 27 games last season as a freshman).

This year’s recruiting class includes Oak Hill Academy graduate Darius Maddox and Chesterfield, Virginia, native Joe Bamisile. There also are three transfers: forward Cordell Pemsyl from Iowa, Justyn Mutts from Delaware, and Cartier Diarra from Kansas State.

“We are deeper in year two. I feel pretty good about the balance of our roster — you know, where our distribution will be in terms of minutes early in the season, and how that will compare to the end of the season will be interesting as guys come on and come into their own as players,” Young said. “We can plug different people into some different spots that we didn’t have the luxury of doing a year ago.”

This year’s ACC boasts four teams in the Preseason Top 20, with a fifth also receiving votes. And that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of a league that’s talented and deep.

“We know our league schedule is going to be a bear. We’re all saying that; we all have difficult stretches in there, Young said. “There’s a reason people consider it the best basketball league that college basketball has to offer.”

The two paths in the Commonwealth converge on the first and last Saturday of January. Virginia Tech visits Virginia on Jan. 2 while hosting the Cavaliers on Jan. 30.


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