Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill sat patiently at their respective tables during ACC men’s basketball media day several weeks ago, waiting to see whether more reporters were going to arrive.
They had just finished fielding the first round of questions, and as important contributors to the Cavaliers’ consecutive ACC regular season titles and two straight 30-win seasons, the redshirt seniors figured they would be in high demand. So they braced for another lengthy session in front of cameras and microphones.
They got off pretty easy. Media instead swarmed around Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his players as well as North Carolina’s Roy Williams and players representing the Tar Heels. There was even elevated attention paid to a pair of Louisville players, both transfers, in light of the absence of their embattled coach, Rick Pitino, who avoided the proceedings under advice from legal counsel.
All of which was just fine with Brogdon and Gill. Let everyone else swoon over the blue bloods. The Cavaliers need no validation from anyone other than Coach Tony Bennett and his staff as they seek much more than another ACC championship. This season, which will begin Friday at home against Morgan State, is about getting the Final Four in Houston after bowing out in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32 as a No. 2 seed.
“We’ve always been underdogs, and that’s the mentality we like to have,” said Brogdon, Virginia’s scoring leader the past two seasons. “That’s just fuel for the fire for us. It’s motivation. I think motivation is great, and I think regardless of expectations, regardless of people ignoring us, we’re a program that prides itself sticking with what we do best.”
Which is play defense longer and with more purpose than any other program in the country. At least that’s the message from Bennett, the reigning two-time ACC coach of the year who has directed the Cavaliers to 16 conference victories in each of the past two seasons. Virginia is the only program in the storied history of the ACC to accomplish the feat.
Last season Virginia led the nation in scoring defense (51.5 points allowed per game) and became the first school in 18 years to hold three opponents to fewer than 30 points. The Cavaliers’ only regular season losses in the ACC came to five-time NCAA champion Duke, 69-63, in Charlottesville, and at Louisville, 59-57. They also fell in the ACC semifinals to North Carolina, which is ranked No. 1 in this year’s Associated Press preseason poll.
The Cavaliers are highly regarded by poll voters as well, even if their lack of flash or off-court drama reduces their curb appeal. They enter this season ranked No. 6. That’s their highest preseason position since 1982-83, when Virginia opened as the top-ranked team in the country behind center Ralph Sampson, the three-time player of the year and No. 1 overall selection in the 1983 NBA draft.
“You’re going into games where [opponents] are trying to play their best, even the so-called big boys, and that means you’ve got to be ready for that,” Bennett said.
“You’ve got to embrace that. You’ve got to understand that, but how we’re going to be our best is we’re not going to change much of how we’ve been. We have an identity. We’re going to stick to it.”
No players better represent Bennett’s rugged philosophy than Brogdon and Gill, both of whom were selected to the ACC all-defensive team last season. Gill, a 6-foot-8 forward, also established career highs in points (11.6 per game) and rebounds (6.5), leading Virginia in that category as well as in field goal percentage (.582) and steals (29).
Brogdon, a second-team all-American, averaged 14 points last season, helping to stabilize the Cavaliers during the absence of Justin Anderson, Virginia’s second-leading scorer. Anderson missed eight games with a broken finger and an appendectomy, but the Cavaliers went 7-1 over that stretch. At the end of the season, the junior guard declared for the NBA draft, going No. 21 overall to the Dallas Mavericks.
Thus even more of the scoring burden this season may fall to Brogdon, who set a career high with 25 points in the 71-67 loss to the Tar Heels. It was the second-most points of any Virginia player in a game last season. Brogdon followed that performance with 22 points in a 79-67 win against Belmont in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“Just to go further than we did last year,” Gill said when asked what motivates the Cavaliers. “Not to discredit anything we did throughout the whole year.
“We won 30 games last year, but I think everybody knows that we want to do more. I feel like we have the talent to do more. It’s just up to us to go out there and have the mentality to really want it, and that’s what we’re going to do this year.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Justin Anderson missed eight games last season beacuse of a broken finger and mononucleosis.
Clock management: Among the many rule changes taking effect this season is reducing the shot clock to 30 seconds, which stands to benefit the Cavaliers defensively. Because of its relentless pressure, Virginia frequently forces opponents to get down to the final seconds of the shot clock before releasing the ball. Teams are going to have even less time to run their offense this season with five fewer seconds on the clock.
The other side of the equation, though, is if the Cavaliers are going to be able to get good shots on a regular basis. Virginia ranked 32nd nationally last season in offensive efficiency, but that was with Anderson.
Center stage: Senior Mike Tobey (7 feet, 260 pounds) is set to become the starter at center following the departure of Darion Atkins, who was the ACC defensive player of the year. Tobey, the ACC’s sixth man of the year, started 11 games last season and played in all 34, averaging 6.9 points and 5.1 rebounds, both career highs. He also had 22 blocks, which were second on the Cavaliers behind Atkins.
Next man up: Replacing Anderson is going to be no easy task, but the most likely candidates for complementary scoring are 6-5 sophomore guard Marial Shayok, 6-8 senior forward Evan Nolte or 6-7 sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins. Shayok averaged 3.8 points last season and was the only freshman to appear in all 34 games.
More college basketball: