By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – In different areas of John Paul Jones Arena, the University of Virginia’s basketball teams officially started practice Tuesday afternoon. Each heads into the 2018-19 season with cause for optimism.
The UVA men, who are in their 10th year under head coach Tony Bennett, return a strong core from the team that in 2017-18 swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles. The Cavaliers open the season Nov. 6 against Towson at JPJ.
The UVA women have a new head coach in Tina Thompson, who this month was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for her accomplishments as a player. The Cavaliers have back three of the top five scorers from a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round.
Thompson’s debut as a head coach comes Nov. 9 at JPJ, where Virginia will host NCAA runner-up Mississippi State.
Since June, both UVA teams have been practicing on a limited basis and working out with their respective strength and conditioning coaches – Mike Curtis for the men, Morgan Foster for the women — with an extended break last month. Under NCAA rules, each team can now practice more often and for longer periods.
Some observations from the practices I watched Tuesday and during the offseason, starting with the men:
* It’s easy to see why redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter is projected as a first-round NBA pick. The ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year last season, Hunter has an air of confidence on the court that wasn’t always apparent at this time last year. The 6-7, 225-pound forward is a dynamic talent, and he knows it.
Hunter did not start any games last season, but his importance to the team was never more evident than in the NCAA tournament. With Hunter sidelined with an injury, top-seeded Virginia lost in the first round to UMBC.
* It’s strange to look out on the court and not see Ron Sanchez, Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins, who were with Bennett at UVA for nine, five and four seasons, respectively. Sanchez left in March to become head coach at Charlotte, and Hall and Wilkins are pursuing professional careers.
* If forward Braxton Key, a 6-8, 225-pound transfer from Alabama, is not granted immediate eligibility, UVA’s reserves will be largely untested.
The likely starters are a seasoned group: fifth-year senior Jack Salt at center, redshirt junior Mamadi Diakite at power forward, Hunter at small forward and juniors Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome in the backcourt.
Behind them, however, are 7-1 redshirt sophomore Jay Huff, 6-4 sophomore Marco Anthony, 6-7 redshirt freshman Francesco Badocchi, 5-9 freshman Kihei Clark, 7-0 freshman Francisco Caffaro, 6-7 freshman Kody Stattmann and, perhaps, Key.
Caffaro, who’s recovering from surgery on his leg, will redshirt this season, and Stattmann might as well. Badocchi and Clark have never appeared in a college game, and Huff and Anthony played sparingly last season.
* The Cavaliers’ captains in 2017-18 were Hall, Wilkins and Salt. Jerome, who works as hard as any player on the team, had a terrific offseason and is ready to take on a significant leadership role in 2018-19.
* Diakite is long, athletic and skilled. He had several memorable performances in 2017-18, when he averaged 5.4 points and 3.0 rebounds per game, but he’ll have to be more consistent if the Wahoos are to contend in the ACC again.
* Huff remains a tremendously gifted offensive player. During a series of drills Tuesday, he hit a variety of shots, ranging from dunks to 3-pointers. How much he plays, however, is likely to depend on how he defends and rebounds, two areas in which he’s struggled at times.
On the women’s side:
* Depth is a concern for the Cavaliers. They have only 11 scholarship players, one of whom, 6-2 forward Dani Lawson, is expected to sit out this season after transferring from Purdue.
* The heart of the team is the four-player class that enrolled at UVA in the summer of 2016: 6-9 Felicia Aiyeotan, 6-3 Lisa Jablonowski, 6-0 Jocelyn Willoughby and 5-9 Dominique Toussaint. As sophomores last season, each averaged at least 17.6 minutes per game.
* Look for Aiyeotan to take another significant step forward this season. As a freshman in 2016-17, stamina was an issue for Aiyeotan, and she averaged only 12.5 minutes per game.
In 2017-18, however, Aiyeotan averaged 7.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 22.4 minutes per game. She posted seven double-doubles, led the ACC in blocked shots, and made the conference’s all-defensive team.
* Redshirt freshman Amandine Toi, a 5-10 guard from France, is likely to play a leading role in the backcourt. Toi, who missed the 2017-18 season while recovering from a torn ACL, is an exceptional athlete who’s added about 10 pounds to her slender frame since enrolling at UVA last summer.
* This is senior Moné Jones’ last chance to make an impact as a college player, and the ‘Hoos need her to be a consistent contributor. The 6-3 forward arrived at UVA as a heralded recruit, but injuries have hindered her career. She appeared in only 15 games last season, but Jones is healthy now and moved well Tuesday.
* The team’s only freshman, 5-9 Erica Martinsen, will bolster the Cavaliers’ outside shooting. Martinsen played at Williamsville East High School in New York as a freshman and sophomore, at Blair Academy in New Jersey as a junior, and at IMG Academy in Florida as a senior.
She scored more than 2,000 points in her high school career.
* The 6-2 Thompson retired from the WNBA in 2013, but she still has game. Early in practice Tuesday, she didn’t hesitate to stop a drill and demonstrate proper technique to post players Aiyeotan, Jones, Jablonowski and Lawson.