Virginia Coach Tony Bennett hoped he would begin his fourth season with a more veteran lineup, but since that’s not the case, he’s embracing the youth movement full bore.
Bennett announced Thursday afternoon that his starting lineup in Friday night’s season opener at George Mason would likely include three freshmen — guard Taylor Barnette, former All-Met Justin Anderson and center Mike Tobey. The trio will be joined by guard Joe Harris and forward Akil Mitchell, the team’s lone upperclassmen available in the beginning of the season.
“I guess throw them in the deep end and see if they can swim or not,” Bennett said.
Anderson and Tobey were considered top-100 recruits and their ascension into an early starting role shouldn’t come as a surprise. Barnette’s presence in the lineup is because of the absence of senior guard Jontel Evans, whose foot injury is still not completely healthy.
Bennett said Evans’s status would be determined on a game-by-game basis and that he could return for Virginia’s matchup with Fairfield next Monday as part of the preliminary rounds of the NIT Season Tip-Off. He once again offered no timetable on when sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon, who has been slow to recover from offseason foot surgery.
“I wouldn’t call him a classic, pure point guard, but he provides some feel and ballhandling that helps [Joe Harris and reserve shooting guard Paul Jesperson],” Bennett said of Barnette. “He has the ability to be a threat from the perimeter and a nice feel and one of our better ballhandlers in this current state we’re in.”
Bennett is counting on Anderson to be an energy player, at least initially, and said the former Montrose Christian standout has proven he’s capable of providing “X factor things on the offensive glass.” Tobey, a 6-11 big man, has shown nice touch around the basket and could provide the Cavaliers with a legitimate post presence this season.
But Bennett noted all of his freshmen had their ups and downs when Virginia held closed preseason scrimmages against VCU and Baylor, and he expects sophomore Darion Atkins, freshman Evan Nolte and Jesperson to see plenty of action off the bench Friday night at the Patriot Center.
George Mason, picked to finish third in the CAA this season, went 24-9 in Coach Paul Hewitt’s first season a year ago, including a 15-1 record at home. But the Patriots were dealt a significant blow this when Hewitt announced sophomore forward Erik Copes and sophomore guard Vaughn have been suspended for the first three games of the season for “student-athlete conduct violations.”
The Patriots will have junior guard Sherrod Wright, a 53 percent three-point shooter who averaged 9.6 points per game last year in a suppletary role. Forward Marko Gujanicic, a 6-8 freshman from Serbia who played at a California prep school, is also an intriguing player. He led George Mason with 16 points in its exhibition win over Bowie State this preseason.
Virginia will be without freshman guard Teven Jones on Friday night when he was suspended for one game after a violation of team rules. The disciplinary measures, combined with Bennett’s decision to embrace his talented freshman class right away, has led to a level of uncertainty heading into this season opener.
“I’m sure Paul is feeling the same way. You don’t quite know exactly what to expect from your team early in the year,” Bennett said. “I thought we’d have a veteran back court, or an experienced back court, coming into this setting. That didn’t happen, so we’ll go with a younger group. We’re gonna get the feel right away what it’s like to go on the road against a high level team in a pretty intense setting.”
As a reminder, tip-off for tonight’s game is set for 7 and will be televised on MASN.