By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– At the University of Virginia, the 2019-20 men’s basketball team looks much different than the 2018-19 version. And that’s fine with Tony Bennett, who’s heading into his 11th season as the Cavaliers’ head coach.
“It’s a new challenge,” Bennett said this week at John Paul Jones Arena. “We had such a great year and we lost some key guys.”
He smiled. “If you said, ‘Hey, you’re going to win a national championship, three guys are going to get drafted, and you’re going to have to be new, is that OK?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, I think it is.’ “
Gone from the team that finished 35-3 after defeating Texas Tech in the NCAA title game are the three top scorers –– Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome –– as well as starting center Jack Salt and reserve guard Marco Anthony.
Of that group, only Salt exhausted his college eligibility. Hunter, Jerome and Guy left UVA early to pursue professional careers, and each was selected in last week’s NBA draft: Hunter at No. 4, Jerome at No. 24, and Guy at No. 55. Anthony transferred to Utah State.
The new faces in the program are freshmen Casey Morsell, Kadin Shedrick, Justin McKoy and Chase Coleman, a walk-on from Norfolk; junior-college transfer Tomas Woldentensae (pronounced Thomas Woal-duh-TEN-sigh); and Sam Hauser, a transfer from Marquette who’ll have to sit out the coming season.
Morsell, a 6-2 guard from Fort Washington, Md., starred for St. John’s College High School in the rugged Washington Catholic Athletic Conference and was a finalist this month for USA Basketball’s U19 national team.
The newcomers join returning players Mamadi Diakite, Braxton Key, Jay Huff, Kihei Clark, Kody Stattmann, Francesco Badocchi, Francisco Caffaro, Austin Katstra and Jayden Nixon.
Summer practices began this month for the Wahoos, who are also training with strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis, but Bennett has not yet had a full complement of players. Hauser won’t enroll at UVA until next month, and Stattmann (Australia) and Caffaro (Argentina) are playing at the U19 World Cup in Greece.
“They’re getting invaluable experience on a big stage, and it’s huge for them to represent their countries,” said Bennett, whose record at UVA is 254-89. “So I’m really excited for them.”
In a post-practice interview at JPJ this week, Bennett touched on a number of topics. Some highlights follow.
JW: You were at the NBA draft in Brooklyn with De’Andre and his family last week. What was that experience like?
Bennett: “To be at the table and see De’Andre when his name was called, watching one of his great dreams become actualized, was really neat. What I loved is, he was really thankful. It was wonderful that I got to sit there with him and share in that with him, and he was so appreciative. That’s a special moment, and to see all three guys get drafted was great.”
JW: De’Andre redshirted in 2016-17, and so his career path wasn’t the usual one for a lottery pick. Will you mention him to other players as an example of how patience and hard work can be rewarded?
Bennett: “Right before the draft started, I jokingly asked him and his mom and his brother, ‘All right, do you guys forgive me for redshirting you?’ And they all smiled and they said, ‘It’s worked out pretty good.’ And we all laughed about it. Because that was hard. But because he was willing to be patient, it really was a great story.
“I think of Devon Hall, who got drafted [in 2018]. He was patient, like Mike Scott. Malcolm [Brogdon], and all those redshirt guys that bided their time. It’s amazing how it’s worked out.”
JW: Kyle, Ty and De’Andre came in together and helped Virginia win its first NCAA championship. How will you look back on their time here?
Bennett: “Those guys were such a big part of doing something that hadn’t been done here. Ultimately, you want them to be able to get their degrees, and that will happen in due time. But from a basketball standpoint: Can you win and be successful? Can you represent the program with class? And then, after you’re done, can you have a chance to have a professional career? And if you can do those things, that’s as good as it gets, and that’s what those guys have done.”
JW: Mamadi considered leaving, too, before withdrawing from the draft. He’s your top returning scorer (7.4 ppg). What are you expecting from him as a fifth-year senior?
Bennett: “He got experience by testing [the NBA waters], and I think this will be an important year for us and him, and I expect him to improve and have a very good year. He has some of the things that equate to the next level, so that’s obviously exciting.”
JW: What are your thoughts on the newcomers?
Bennett: “Too early to say. But they’re wonderful guys, and this is letting them get accustomed [to UVA], and it’s just good to get them in the culture. I think as the weeks progress, there’s some opportunities for ’em. You’re just introducing them to what Coach Curtis does and some of the stuff we do. But I think it’s a nice group, and there’s a lot of new faces.”
JW: Casey Morsell looks like he’ll be ready to contribute from day one. What do you like about him?
Bennett: “He played in the Catholic league, and then his experiences with USA Basketball and playing on one of the best AAU teams in the EYBL (Elite Youth Basketballl League], all that stuff helps.”
JW: Chase Coleman has impressed in the short time he’s been here. What does he add?
Bennett: “All of our walk-ons have been terrific, and he’s an excellent addition. I can’t wait, when we get going, to watch his quickness and Kihei’s quickness going back and forth. Those are two very quick sliders.”
JW: Speaking of Kihei, his experience last season was one few freshmen have had in college basketball, starting at point guard on a national championship team. So he’s not a typical sophomore. What do you need from him this season?
Bennett: “He’s gotta be a leader. Mamadi and Jay, Braxton and Kihei have the most experience. That’s the reality.”
JW: Coming off the loss to UMBC, your team had something to prove last season. Now you’re coming off an NCAA championship. What will be the offseason focus this year?
Bennett: “I think we’re going to work. I reminded some of those guys, ‘Look, you’re out there for our camps, you’re signing autographs, you’re signing national championship banners and Sports Illustrated, and that can be intoxicating.’ And I reminded some of them that they weren’t even here [in 2018-19) and so they don’t need to worry about it.
“But I said, ‘For those of you who were here [last season], it’ll always be a memory, but it’s a memory, and the page gets turned. You enjoyed it. You grow from the experiences, just like we did last year on the other extreme, but you get to work.’ And that’s the bottom line: You get to work.”