Virginia Basketball Preview: Plenty of Questions

tb4While we are winding down football, it is time to turn our attention to the hardwood. The Hoos are looking to build on their 20 win season with a trip to the NCAA Tourney in this post Mike Scott era. And while the feel of this team is similar to Bennett’s second season in 2010, there is a little bit more upside than then. But to survive a new 18 game ACC slate along with an opportunity to go to the preseason NIT, they will have to answer a lot of questions very, very quickly.

Part 1: The Team

The conversation starts with the loss of Mike Scott, who will no doubt have his jersey retired, but it does not end there. Gone also is Sammy Z on the perimeter and true center Assane Sene, two pieces of Virginia’s early success last season. So Virginia will have to turn to a lot of new faces to make up the difference. Let’s take a look at them by position.

1-Point Guard

Jontel Evans (SR, Hampton, VA)
Teven Jones (rFR, Kannapolis, NC)

It is alway great when your floor general returns from the previous year. What is not great is when he had offseason surgery and just got out of his walking boot the Monday before the season opener. Throw on top of that the grey shirted Jones, who have been with the team since January, not being available for the first two games and you have big issue right off the bat. First off this is not (or hasn’t) been a team that has handled full court pressure well at all. Teams like LSU and Seattle really have given them fits in the past, and they weren’t very good teams to start. By the looks of it, Virginia might get them both back at the same time, which will be just in time for the NIT games, but will have to figure out how to get the ball up the court. Evans shot the ball better last year than the previous 2, but he is still a pass first PG with the ability to drive to the basket for the easy two. Jones was not a huge recruit out of high school and has been viewed a stop gap between Jontel and 2013 commit Devon Hall. Either way, both will see time on the floor this year. Walk-on Doug Browman (SR, Midlothian, VA) was used at the end of games last season, but hard to see him used much unless it is absolutely necessary.

2-Shooting Guard

Joe Harris (JR, Chelan, WA)
Malcolm Brogdon (SO, Norcross, GA)
Taylor Barnette (FR, Lexington, KY)

Another position were injury is going to hurt the team early. Brogdon is still trying to come back from a broken bone in his foot, and was not 100% cleared a few weeks ago. While he might see action soon, it is difficult to say what his impact will be, if any. Joe Harris, who is big enough for the 3 will move out to the 2…and most likely have to run point while Evans and Jones are out, is the best pure shooter on the team and is ultra reliable everywhere on the court. Now he is completely healed from his hand injury late last year and will be good to go early on. Barnette is another mystery 1st year that was a great shooter in high school, but it will be interesting to see if his defensive ability will allow him on the floor. Two walk-on in this slot as well, Thomas Rogers (JR, Farmville, VA) saw a little time last year and ‘transfer’ Justin Miller (FR, Columbia, MO) came from U of Missouri, but didn’t play either his high school senior season or with the team in Columbia.

3-Small Forward

Paul Jesperson (SO, Merrill, WS)
Justin Anderson (FR, Montross, VA)

Bennett has plenty of talent at the SF position, but doesn’t use them like most other schools. Jesperson was forced out of his redshirt last season due to injury/depth issues, and really needed more game time. When he was on, he has incredible range anywhere on the floor. Anderson is the biggest recruit to come to Virginia in more than a decade (Watson, Mapp) and has been impressing everyone with his inside, above the rim game. Look for Tony to switch out these two (and possibly Nolte and Harris) to create different looks as the games wear along

4- Power Forward

Darion Atkins (SO, Clinton, MD)
Akil Mitchell (JR, Charlotte, NC)
Evan Nolte (FR, Milton, GA)

Ah, the Mike Scott Memorial Position. Atkins and Mitchell are about the same as far as size and ability, but will have to keep out of foul trouble this year as the slot is really, really thin while Virginia waits for transfer Anthony Gill to be eligible in ’13. Nolte is between a 3 and 4, as he is 6-8 like DA and AM, but needs to put on some more weight to bang around inside. All three can score and rebound down low and will be called on to make up for Scott’s departure.


Mike Tobey (FR, Monroe, NY)

The biggest X-factor on this team has to be Tobey. Not highly recruited out of high school, the Hoos saw his upside as a junior and took his commitment early. All he did was get healthy his senior year and put up some big numbers. And from what we hear, he was impressive in Europe this summer against some good competition. Wether he is Day 1 ready or not is to be seen, but he will log some heavy minutes early and has the frame to really clog the lane.

Overall Outlook

This team will start this year like they ended last year, with injury issues that will thin out the depth. The early results this year will be directly related to how the 1st years take on the minutes and the scoring load. This is not a team that needs to put up 70-80 each game, but Scott, Sammy, and Sene were a good majority of that, and those slots need to be productive.

Part 2-The Schedule

With last year’s soft schedule, there was no reason why they shouldn’t have won 20 games. This season, it gets a little harder. Not so much from competition, but from uncertainty.

Trap Game from the Start

Nov. 9 at George Mason

Nothing like starting the season on the road. But when it is in state to a team who has seen the Final Four this century, it is not fun. They will try to push the tempo and press UVa all game, both things the Hoos don’t like. And while it is at home, most people are giving this one to GMU.

The Not Seth Greenberg Invitational

Nov 12-Nov 23
Possible Opponents: Fairfield, Delaware, Penn, Michigan, Kansas State, Pitt

So did you know their was two NITs. Yep and we are in the field this year. But before you can get to Madison Square Gardens, you have to win 2 opening round games. Now, they try to set it up for the 4 biggest names to make it to NYC by giving them home court advantage for a “mini tournament”. The Hoos will start against Fairfield, which should be a walk, but then they would get either Penn or Delaware, both teams coming off of solid seasons with momentum. If Virginia loses one of those games, they get 2 other ‘play in teams’ at home the next week. If they win, Hoos go off to New York and will face decent competition. The only one the Cavs really want to avoid is Michigan (they probably don’t like us much after last year). Kansas State is breaking in a new coach and Pitt is coming off a very, very bad season.

The Tortoise vs. The Tortoise

Nov 28 at Wisconsin

Since James Naismith nailed up those peach baskets has there ever, EVER, been a game that will be as slow as this one. Both teams ended 1-2 in the defensive points allowed category last season, and it all has to do with pace. It will be ssslllloooowwww. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s going to be a great game, just maybe 19-18 at half. ESPN knew what they were doing when they put this matchup together. Should be interesting to watch…in lieu of NyQuil.

Home for The Holidays

Dec 1 vs. Green Bay
Dec 5 vs. Tennessee
Dec 8 vs. Miss. Valley State
Dec 19 vs. Morgan State
Dec 30 vs. Wofford

Nothing says December like a nice long home stand at JPJ. And it is always the point in the season where, if you are on the bubble and don’t make it to the big dance, you point to this stretch. The only difficult game in this group is Tennessee, and they were in the ‘also receiving votes’ column preseason. All the rest should be wins.

The ‘Ice Bowl’ Cometh

Dec 22 vs. ODU

I love games in Richmond. I don’t have to travel as far to get to them and I usually meet up with some friends downtown beforehand. Even more exciting than the matchup with Old Dominion in the Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic is the memories of the Ice Bowl, Virginia’s matchup with Michigan State back in 2001 which was called due to the floor being to wet. See they put the floor over the Richmond Renegades’, a minor league hockey team, rink. I don’t think I need to explain condensation, but you get the point. No hockey this time around and the Hoos get top billing in the one-game tourney this year.

Expansion Blues

Notable Games:
Jan 6 vs UNC
Jan 24 at VT
Jan 29 vs NC State
Feb 12 vs VT
Feb 16 at UNC
Feb 28 vs Duke
Mar 10 vs Maryland

In anticipation of the looming expansion, the ACC has expanded league play from 16 to 18 games. But until Pitt and Syracuse get here next season and ND the year after that, we play 2 more with the current slate. The Hoos got a very favorable slate this year with only having to play Duke and NCSU once, and both are at home. We do get FSU and UNC twice, and only Miami and Wake on the road, which seems like a more than fair trade off. And of course we get Maryland at home for the last game of the season…the way it should be.

Overall Outlook

There are some opportunities for UVa so have a more than decent season. The Hoos can go 9-4 in non conference and 9-9 in the ACC and 18-13 would be a decent NIT birth. Any more and/or some ACC Tourney wins and then the Hoos could slip into the NCAA tourney.

Part 3-Top Questions

So now that we know the players and the schedule, what are the biggest questions coming into the season we need to address to be successful? Here are our top 5.

1. Who is going to replace Mike Scott in the locker room?

One of the hardest things to do is to replace born leaders. We had a big issue once Sean Singletary left in 2008. No one really stepped up and we were in discourse for a few seasons until Mike Scott. Flash forward to 2012 and we are in the same spot. The easy answer is Jontel Evans and Joe Harris. Evans being a senior has a lot of sway, but Harris carries the banner for Tony Bennett as one of the two eldest players that were recruited by him. I feel both can do the job and we will see who emerges as season moves along.

2. Who will pick up the scoring slack vacated by last year’s 4th years?

We all know Scott’s line (18 ppg), but Sammy put up 8.6 and Sene contributed 4.9. All and all that equates to just over 50% of all the points scored last season, and that is a ton of turnover. First off, you have to look at Joe Harris and think that he will pick up some of the slack. Jontel will still account for some scoring, but I don’t think he will greatly increase his average more than last year’s 7.3 ppg. So now you have to turn to two groups. First, Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins must increase their presence down low  on the offensive end this season as they averaged a combined 6.4 ppg last year. Secondly, the 3 1st years of Anderson, Nolte, and Tobey can make up a large part of that, but must find their own opportunities in Bennett’s offense and learn their defensive roles first so that TB keeps them on the floor. I would like to see more from Brogdon and Jesperson, but….

3.  How will injuries affect depth this season?

It is a big issue right now as, realistically, there are 11 legit players who will see the floor this year, but only about 8 can contribute game to game. Cross out Evans for the first few games and Brogdon for who knows how long and you are looking at some key players like Harris having to play out of position. The way it looks now is Virginia will have to patch it together for the first part of the season and use the December non-conference slate to hone in on a cohesive team Bennett can use for the ACC stretch.

4. Who will hit the 3?

When you play as deliberate as Tony likes to do, you see how much the 3 plays into his offense. They call it ‘the dagger’ for a reason, but at UVa, it is so much more. Harris was the best behind the arc last season at 38%, but since Sammy is gone, no other player has attempted more than 70+ a season. Brogdon was streaky, but see above. Jesperson was only 7-for-31 last year in his abbreviated year and should see that go up with a full offseason under his belt. The short of it is if there’s no #2 option behind Joe, it will be a long season.

5. Who can draw that foul and hit the freebies?

Another calling card of recent seasons has been the fact that we are a jump shot team. While it has worked in the past, it means less trips to the free throw line. Scott’s calling card was his fade away jumper, and while he was a power forward, he played it more like a small forward. This is the spot the Hoos can really improve on. Again, increased roles on Mitchell and Atkins should help that number, but keep your eyes on Anderson and Tobey. Anderson loves the dribble-drive and if the signs from the summer are correct and Tobey can be an inside scorer, he should draw some attention from defenders.

Final Verdict

It seems that the view of tenure of Bennett’s teams alternate from year to year. 2010 was down, 2011 was high, and now in 2012 it is down again, with 2013 being the year it rebounds. It will be tough going at the beginning of the year, but the Hoos have a great shot at a .500 season in the ACC and a 8-10 win non-conference stretch. So that’s 17-19 wins, which would put us squarely in the NIT. So there you go: good season, but not great.

Hamilton Riley

About Hamilton Riley

Mild mannered contractor by day, sports blogger by insomnia.