By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As high as expectations were for the UVa men’s basketball team in 2013-14, they were not high enough, it turned out. The Cavaliers, picked to finish fourth in the ACC, swept the conference’s regular-season and tournament titles, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 19 years.
Expectations are even higher for the Wahoos in 2014-15. The ACC preseason poll won’t be released until next week, but UVa is ranked No. 8 nationally in the USA Today coaches’ poll.
All of which, head coach Tony Bennett said Wednesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena, means little.
“The biggest message I’ve given our team, and I think it’s really important, is that no one can take away what happened last year,” Bennett said during the Cavaliers’ annual media day. “It was obviously a fun year, a terrific year. But I think it would be a big mistake to try to compare us to last year’s team. I think the key really is, and I told them this, to realize as a group we are a different team.
“We’re going to certainly have to find our identity, and we will as the season progresses. But you obviously want to max out, absolutely get as good as we can be. And perhaps that will make us better than last year’s team and take us further, but perhaps we won’t be as good and won’t go as far. It’s really all about what this team can do to max out to and reach their full potential.”
UVa lost Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, two of the program’s cornerstones for four years, but returns such players as Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Justin Anderson, Mike Tobey, Darion Atkins, London Perrantes and Evan Nolte, all of whom contributed in 2013-14.
“I think our guys, the ones that are returning, have those experiences to draw from,” Bennett said.
As always, though, the key is “honoring the process and what’s in front of you,” Bennett said. “That never changes, whether you’re projected to be really good or not projected to be as good … You can talk about it and hype about it, but none of that stuff really matters. It’s what happens when the season gets going.”
Tobey, a 7-0 junior, said he believes the players have handled the heightened expectations well.
“One of our pillars is humility, and I think a lot of these guys have that pillar as part of themselves, if that makes sense,” Tobey said. “So everyone just kind of forgets about last year and knows this year is a whole new year. Everyone’s 0-0, and we gotta be the best team we can be this year. Whatever happens, happens.”
Virginia opens the season Nov. 14 against JMU in Harrisonburg. The Cavaliers’ home opener is two nights later. UVa hosts Norfolk State at JPJ at 7 p.m. on Nov. 16.
MULTIPLE OPTIONS: Bennett has a full complement of 13 scholarship players, one of whom, sophomore guard Darius Thompson, is allowed to practice but must sit out this season after transferring to UVa from Tennessee.
Hall, who redshirted last season, will be in the backcourt rotation this season. The roles of the other four, all of whom were in high school last year, are still to be determined.
“That’s something I look at every day and I study and say, `OK, which one is most ready?’ ” Bennett said.
All the newcomers have “shown flashes where I think, `Boy, they can help us,’ ” Bennett said. “Then there are those times that you see they’re spinning a little bit. I believe we’re going to need them … I think there is an opportunity for a couple of them for sure, maybe more, depending upon the situation. But it’s too early to say which ones. It’s a pretty competitive fight.”
At least one of the freshmen could redshirt, Bennett said, though such decisions are always up to the players.
“I will always sit down in that situation and we’ll discuss what’s best, and then they have the right to decide what they want,” Bennett said. “It’s hard for young players, young men today, as we’ve talked about with the instant gratification, to really wait and to work and to be patient. Maybe you’ve got to work for two, three years or wait until you’re an upperclassman or whatever it is. It’s challenging. But [for] those that do, there is really good stuff on the end of it.”
Hall is convinced of that. A graduate of Cape Henry Collegiate in Virginia Beach, he chose to redshirt in 2013-14 and put the year to good use. Through workouts with strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis, Hall transformed his body, cutting about nine pounds and unearthing leaping ability that wasn’t evident when he arrived on Grounds in June 2013.
“I just feel lighter on my feet, so I can get up a little more,” said Hall, who weighs about 203 pounds. “Coach Curtis has done an amazing job, and it’s just a matter of hard work.”
Should any of the freshmen have questions about redshirting, or be referred to him by the coaching staff, Hall said, “I’ll definitely talk to them about it. Obviously, at first you kind of say, `Ah, man,’ but it’s just a process that you should look forward to and take advantage of.”
ON THE MEND: Since starting practice Oct. 3, the `Hoos have been without their No. 1 point guard, Perrantes.
The 6-2 Perrantes, who shot 43.7 percent from 3-point range and made the ACC’s all-freshman team in 2013-14, is sidelined with a foot injury.
“Obviously, he’s an important piece to the team,” Bennett said. “but in some ways that’s been good because it’s forced guys to have to take bigger roles, and hopefully he’s progressing well.”
The 6-2 Perrantes ranked third among ACC players in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.50) last season. He was third on the team in 3-pointers made, behind Harris (72) and Brogdon (44), and Perrantes’ role figures to grow in 2014-15.
“He had a good off season in terms of developing his physical abilities,” Bennett said. “I think he’s a little stronger, more explosive. He brings that steadying hand to our team that will certainly be important as we get into competition.”
NOT-SO-SECRET WEAPON: As he has many times in years past, Bennett raved Wednesday about Curtis’ work with the players. Curtis, a former UVa player, returned to his alma mater in the spring of 2009.
“He’s so detail-oriented,” Bennett said.
Curtis spent six years as the Memphis Grizzlies’ strength and conditioning coach and also has worked at Dayton, South Carolina and Michigan.
“I always say he’s the ace up the sleeve,” Bennett said. “I like to tell recruits, “I wish I could tell you I’m the best coach in the country. I’m not. That’s easy for me to say. But I can say easily we’ve got the best strength coach in the country.’ No doubt. I’ll take that to the bank.”
Curtis emphasizes injury prevention, and considerable time is spent on corrective exercises, “stuff that when I was coming up, we didn’t do,” said Bennett, a former NBA point guard.
“But his approach is good. It’s good for longevity of the players. It’s for health reasons. Some of it is from these top soccer teams and the way they train. He’s got a lot of stuff that’s beyond my knowledge, but I trust him.”
INTERNATIONAL FLAVOR: Salt, a 6-11, 235-pound center, is from Auckland, New Zealand, and Shayok, a 6-5, 207-pound swingman, is from Ottawa, Canada.
In each of the past two NBA drafts, the No. 1 pick was a Canadian — Anthony Bennett in 2013 and Andrew Wiggins this year.
“Canada basketball is on the rise, and it’s been a great thing,” Shayok said. “We just want to play the best we can and let the rest of the world know we’re on the rise and we’re not just a hockey country anymore.”
Shayok, who spent his final two years of high school at Blair Academy in New Jersey, from which Tobey also graduated, said he never learned to play hockey. Can he ice-skate?
“Actually, I can,” Shayok said, smiling.
Salt, who arrived at the University in May for the first session of summer school, returned home in July to try out for New Zealand’s national team, the Tall Blacks.
He wasn’t named to the team that competed at the FIBA world championships in Spain late this summer, but Salt knows he’ll have more opportunities to represent his country. Overall, he said, it was a positive experience.
“I got to play with some players that I hadn’t played with in a while, so I got to see how I was compared to them,” Salt said Wednesday. “It was good just to play with my old teammates, but I was definitely happy to come back to UVa.”
In pickup games at JPJ this summer, Salt occasionally looked lost, but he has steadily improved in his short time at UVa.
“When I first got here, it was a bit of a surprise, but I’m slowly starting to figure out how to defend these guys,” Salt said. “But it’s definitely a learning process, because I haven’t played back home against bigs that are athletic as these guys are and have this size.”
PIVOTAL YEAR: From his first day at UVa, Tobey has shown off an impressive array of low-post moves, and he started 28 games last season. Tobey’s challenge now, Bennett said, is to become more consistent.
“It’s exciting, just being an upperclassman, everything that comes with that,” Tobey said. “There’s positives and there’s negatives. I’m excited about being able to step into a bigger role this year than I have last year. I can’t wait.”
His weight — about 255 pounds — hasn’t changed from last season, Tobey said, “but I lost fat and gained muscle. I got a lot stronger.”
The added strength should help Tobey inside. He averaged 6.4 points and 3.8 rebounds last season in about 18 minutes per game.
He hopes to improve in many areas, Tobey said, most notably “rebounding and being more sound defensively and then just finishing better. I feel like I struggled at times to finish last year, just for stupid reasons, some of it just thinking about it too much. I think just being stronger will allow me to do a lot of those things.”
As an upperclassman, Tobey said, “I have no more excuses for myself. If I’m inconsistent, the only person to blame is myself. It’s kind of tough. You can’t blame anyone, but it’s on me as an upperclassman to hold myself accountable and push through.”