CHARLOTTESVILLE — Throughout the preseason, there have been little flashes that give Virginia men’s basketball Coach Tony Bennett a glimpse into the future, when his team isn’t quite so young.
All-Met Justin Anderson (Montrose Christian) will drive the lane and use his preternatural athleticism to throw down a ferocious dunk, or 7-footer Mike Tobey will show off a multidimensional skill set that includes a smooth outside shot. Then classmate Evan Nolte, a 6-8 forward with range that could one day make him one of college basketball’s elite shooters, will hit a three-pointer.
But at this juncture, coming off the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007, Bennett hoped he wouldn’t have to start over again with new players. After four of the six players from his initial recruiting class transferred, though, the trajectory of Bennett’s fourth season was changed.
Instead of having a roster full of juniors, the Cavaliers will rely on a nucleus that will include just two scholarship players with more than a year of college experience when they open the regular season at George Mason on Friday night.
“I thought at this stage we’d have a more mature team. I thought we’d have a number of upperclassmen, but with the departures and the transfers, that makes you have to take a step back,” Bennett said. “The makings of a nice team are all there, for sure. 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.”
Bennett proved once and for all last season his methodical style, built around his signature pack-line defense, could be successful in the ACC. Despite a wave of departures and injuries, the Cavaliers managed to win 22 games and earn a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament before a blowout loss to Florida ended their season.
He bolstered that progress with a recruiting class that most recruiting experts consider his best to date, with three top 100 recruits (Tobey, Anderson and Nolte). More than ever, though, Bennett wonders what the future holds.
“It’s a realistic possibility that you could lose guys,” Bennett said. “You never go into that year planning that. You treat your guys as well as you can. Young men have to understand there’s nothing guaranteed in terms of playing time. It usually comes down to that. Let’s call a spade a spade. It comes down to most of the time is a guy willing to wait and battle through and then reap the rewards at the end.
“I think we have quality guys, [but] I would’ve said that about our other class, too. I really would have. The hope is that they’ll all battle. But would I be shocked if at the end of this year if someone decided to look elsewhere? Absolutely not.”
For now, Bennett is counting on them to help a team that will need a balanced approach to replace the production of forward Mike Scott, a first-team all-ACC selection who is playing for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.
To that end, Virginia’s exhibition tour through Europe this summer should help their development. The Cavaliers went 2-3, largely because more veteran professional teams took advantage of them inside.
“The main concern I have with the team is I just feel like we have to be more physical than we have been,” senior point guard Jontel Evans said. “Going overseas, we were tested, but we’re actually gonna be tested even more this year. We’ve got a strong conference and my only concern is our physicality. Everything else will take care of itself.”
Bennett expects shooting guard Joe Harris, one of two players remaining from his first recruiting class at Virginia, to become the closest thing the Cavaliers have to a go-to scorer. Harris also will be counted on to provide minutes at point guard early in the season with Evans and sophomore Malcolm Brogdon both still recovering from offseason foot surgeries.
But Virginia’s calling card will continue to be its half-court defense, and Bennett’s deliberate approach can sometimes wear on younger players used to the freedom afforded them on the AAU circuit, especially when they aren’t getting as much playing time as expected.
Because of that, Bennett’s fourth year at Virginia feels a lot like his first.
“Hitting the reset button? No, because we’ve established some things,” Bennett said. “But that provides a really great opportunity for some of these younger, talented players. I think [it’s] probably why you got them, [but] it’s not a cycle you want to keep repeating.
“You might not be able to keep them all intact, but if you can keep the majority of them together, I think you’re gonna enjoy some nice things on the horizon.”