On the surface, there appear to be two main story lines that have become the focal point of Virginia basketball training camp. In order, they are the health of guards Jontel Evans and Malcolm Brogdon and the development of a well-balanced offense that must compensate for the loss of Mike Scott.
But with just three scholarship juniors and seniors on the roster, Coach Tony Bennett believes the success of this season comes down to how much his younger players can contribute. Talk to anyone around Charlottesville these days, and it has become clear the Cavaliers will need to rely on all five of their talented freshmen at some point this year.
“The makings of a nice team are all there, for sure,” Bennett said at the team’s media day earlier this month. “It’s just can it come together in the absence of a lot of upperclassmen. Can we overcome that? That will be the challenge for us.”
It’s also why July’s exhibition tour through Europe was so crucial for Virginia this year. It gave Bennett 10 extra practices to get his freshmen ingratiated with his system, and the travel built chemistry on a roster that has gone through a lot of change in the past year because of transfers.
Bennett says “there’s a faster learning curve now” and that the extra time this summer allowed him to start preseason practices in a much more advanced fashion that he normally would with a five-member freshman class.
“I couldn’t imagine me coming in now and having the inexperience that I had before that trip, because if we didn’t have those 10 practices, it would have been very overwhelming,” freshman forward Evan Nolte said.
So who are these freshmen? And how will they fit into Bennett’s system and style of play? Here’s a rundown on Bennett’s best recruiting class yet, one that could buoy Virginia this season and will likely provide the foundation for the program going forward.
A 6-foot-11 center with range, there’s a chance Tobey works his way into the starting lineup by the opening game of the season because he’s the only player on the roster taller than 6-8 this year. Tobey was considered a top 75 recruit nationally and his high school coach once compared his touch around the basket to former North Carolina center Tyler Zeller. But Bennett still refers to Tobey as a “pup” – the Monroe, N.Y., native hasn’t even turned 18 yet – and the physicality of playing down low in the ACC will likely be an adjustment for him.
Anderson, an All-Met last year at Montrose Christian and a former Maryland commit, is the highest-rated recruit Bennett has signed at Virginia. Anderson will also be Virginia’s most electric player this year and should become a fan favorite thanks to his penchant for highlight reel dunks. The 6-6 guard is a defensive menace with a chiseled, college-ready physique that would look more appropriate on an NFL linebacker. The key to his success will be the development of a consistent outside shot.
Nolte should have no problem shooting the ball. The 6-8 Milton, Ga., native became a top 100 recruit last year because of his ability as a knockdown outside shooter. He can play both small forward and power forward depending on the lineup, and Bennett foresees him stretching defenses from either position. “He’s what you call a neck-up player,” Bennett said. “He really understands and that’s gonna bode well for him.”
These two freshmen guards are grouped together for a reason. Both arrived at Virginia as scoring guards, and could ultimately finish their careers that way. But both are now being asked to play point guard until Evans and Brogdon return to full health. Jones is a redshirt freshman after coming to Virginia early last January and Barnette was a late signee out of Kentucky. Bennett said the team will need one to contribute minutes at point guard even once Evans is back, and described the battle to start should Evans not be able to play at George Mason next month as “a healthy competition.” Jones is more the slashing type, while Barnette is a sharpshooter from outside.
“For both of us, it was difficult at first, but now we’re starting to get the hang of it,” Jones said.