Virginia Coach Tony Bennett is always going to worry about his defense first. After all, the pack-line defense was the calling card of his father, Dick, and has quickly become a staple throughout Tony Bennett’s coaching career.
Last season, though, the presence of an elite go-to scorer buttressed Bennett’s defensive prowess and the end result was Virginia’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007. So how do the Cavaliers replace Mike Scott’s production (18 points and 8.3 rebounds per game)?
It remains one of the more interesting subplots when trying to determine just how good these Cavaliers can be this season.
“It’ll be more of a balanced attack,” Bennett said earlier this month. “Hopefully four or five guys that are in that 8-12 [points per game] range as opposed to we weren’t real balanced last year.
“Absolutely losing a player that drew the attention Mike Scott did will present some challenges, but we’ll probably have to do more with our player movement. A lot of our offense was geared to getting Mike the ball in certain spots and letting him go to work. I think we’ll look a little different this year.”
Bennett is counting junior Joe Harris, the team’s second-leading scorer at 11.3 points per game last season, to become a focal point of the offense. But there’s no clouding the fact that, even with Scott, the Cavaliers weren’t exactly a juggernaut on that end of the floor.
Because of Bennett’s methodical pace and the absence of a consistent weapon other than Scott, Virginia finished No. 10 in the ACC at 62.5 points per game. The Cavaliers made up for it by embracing the pack line like never before, holding opponents to an ACC-best 54.2 points per contest.
“Joe Harris is probably the most natural guy that could go for a big game or big numbers, but it’s gonna have to be Paul Jesperson and the other guys,” Bennett said. “We’ll have to be, more than in the past, a balanced attack and guys contributing and relying on each other, more than just, ‘Hey, bail us out of the hole if we’re in trouble.’ One guy. If you become that way, it makes you hard to defend when you have more options and you’re not just focusing on one guy.”
The unknown in all this is how Virginia will look once point guard Jontel Evans and sophomore Malcolm Brogdon return from foot injuries. Both Evans and Brogdon are unlikely to play when the Cavaliers face George Mason to open the regular season on Nov. 9, and it remains to seen if either misses an extended amount of action.
That means getting contributions from all over the place, including grinders like forward Akil Mitchell. The 6-8 junior began to carve out a niche at the end of last season, attacking the offensive glass and finishing plays around the rim.
But he spent the summer adding some new moves to his repertoire to help offset the loss of Scott’s skills with his back to the basket. Mitchell even joked that he had gotten “pretty good at the little turn and fade” Scott used at will last season.
“We don’t go into a season thinking, ‘Oh man. We gotta replace Mike,’” Mitchell said. “We got into a season looking at who we have and what we can do. I don’t know. I feel like I can produce numbers and more guys will get an opportunity to step up. It will be a team effort.”