By HANK KURZ Jr.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett must feel like he’s starting over in his fourth season with the Cavaliers.
His roster, now loaded almost entirely with players he recruited, has five freshmen and three sophomores among the 11 scholarship players eligible for this season. There is only one senior.
The returning Cavaliers also have evidence that the defense-first system that Bennett employs is working: Virginia ranked second nationally in scoring defense last season, allowing just 54.2 points per game, and finished 22-10 and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.
That team, however, had forward Mike Scott, who led them in scoring and rebounding, as well as Sammy Zeglinski, who led them in 3-pointers, and 7-footer Assane Sene, and all three were seniors.
How quickly the young players adapt and contribute will determine if the momentum continues.
Limiting opponents’ 3-point opportunities is a big part of the Cavaliers’ defense, but making 3s on offense is critical, too, and Virginia struggled in that department, making just 33 percent last season.
Joe Harris (11.3 ppg, 49 3s) is the leading scorer back, and he may start the season playing point guard until team captain Jontel Evans, the lone senior, returns from a stress fracture in his foot.
“I think we’ll have to be more balanced this year,” Bennett said. “It has to be different. The ball’s going to have to move more. We’re going to have to have more guys that can score in double figures.”
Virginia tried to expedite the development of its young team by taking a 10-day trip to Europe in the summer. Bennett and his players said it served not only to bring them closer together, on and off the court, but to give the freshmen a chance to learn the staff’s expectations, especially on defense.
“We’re ahead of the curve that way,” Bennett said. “Some things are established.”
Virginia played five games overseas, won its first, then slacked off when it played the same team again the next day and lost. Evans said it served as a quick and valuable lesson for the whole team.
“It goes to show that it’s either coach Bennett’s way, or there’s no other way,” the ACC All-Defensive Team selection last year said. “It all starts on that defensive end, and we learned that there.”
But the Cavaliers will also have to score.
Guards Taylor Barnette and Justin Anderson, forward Evan Nolte and even 6-foot-11 center Mike Tobey can all make 3-pointers, Bennett said, and Nolte thinks he can help with scoring right away.
“That’s one of the things I can really bring to the table is knocking down some shots along with getting people open off screens, picking and popping, stuff like that,” Nolte said.
He averaged 17 points as a high school senior, and made 42 percent from beyond the arc.
Scott provided almost all of Virginia’s inside scoring last season, but the Cavaliers expect to have more options down low with the continued development of Akil Mitchell and the addition of Tobey.
“I’m trying to be more confident, more consistent with it,” Mitchell said of his offensive game. “I feel like I can score just about whenever I want to down there now, and with Mike gone, I need to score.”
Last season, he shot 50.5 percent, but barely averaged three attempts per game.
Tobey, a slender 227 pounds, will need to add muscle to withstand the rigors of the college game, especially once Atlantic Coast Conference play begins, but said his scoring touch is his strength.
Anderson, a solid 226 pounds, can score inside and out, but counts defense is his calling card.
“I love defense. That’s why when I came here,” Anderson said.
Evans hopes to only miss the Cavaliers’ opener at George Mason. He’s a defensive stopper at the point and excels at driving to the basket, but sometimes has to be reminded to think of scoring, too.
His backup, sophomore Malcolm Brogdon, is also likely to miss the opener. He had foot surgery in March and his recovery has taken longer than expected.
He isn’t sure when he’ll be cleared to play.