By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Given the option, men’s basketball teams from powerful conferences like the ACC usually choose to open at home against opponents from less-heralded leagues.
In seven of head coach Tony Bennett’s first 10 seasons at the University of Virginia, for example, his team’s first game was at John Paul Jones Arena, and opponents included Longwood, William & Mary, South Carolina State, James Madison and Morgan State.
Bennett’s 11th season with the Cavaliers will start in a much different atmosphere. On Nov. 6, reigning NCAA champion Virginia meets ACC rival Syracuse at 9 p.m. in the 35,012-seat Carrier Dome.
The 2019-20 season will be the first with the new ACC Network in operation, and that was a huge factor in the conference’s decision to start with league games. On Nov. 5, ACC Network will air two ACC contests, including Louisville at Miami, and it will air two more the next night: Notre Dame at North Carolina (7 o’clock) and UVA at Syracuse (9 o’clock).
Commissioner John Swofford addressed scheduling during his remarks Tuesday morning at ACC Operation Basketball, the league’s annual preseason media gathering.
“I’ve said before that I think basketball needed something nationally, really, to tip off the year,” Swofford said. “Football pretty much has that … So I think it’s more and more important to start the basketball season in a way that it deserves and that really grabs fans’ attention.
“We’re excited about tipping off the year in that way with conference games, and obviously it’s outstanding in terms of the ACC Network, and that was the stimulant, but that may also become the norm. We just don’t know … We’ll experience it and then talk about it and then move forward from there. But I think it’s terrific, particularly in the first year of the network, and it was something we could do as a conference where we didn’t have to have national buy-in, so it was much easier to address it as a conference.”
In 2009-10, Bennett’s first season at Virginia, each ACC team played 16 conference games. The ACC moved to 18 league games in 2012-13, and “that’s two more quality games,” Bennett said.
This season, each ACC team will play 20 conference games for the first time.
“I think it’s big,” said senior forward Braxton Key, who represented UVA in Charlotte, along with Bennett and fifth-year senior big man Mamadi Diakite. “It’s great for the fans, great for the players. We love the competition in the conference.”
The Carrier Dome, Key added, is “one of my favorite places to play. It’s massive. Last year we played there and we got really hot, so hopefully we can keep that streak, and it’ll be a great match-up.”
Diakite agreed. “It’s going to test us in many ways,” he said.
Of the Cavaliers’ rotation players from 2018-19, De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy now are pursuing NBA careers, and Jack Salt is playing professionally overseas. UVA’s 2019-20 roster includes six players who were elsewhere last season – freshmen Justin McKoy, Casey Morsell, Kadin Shedrick and Chase Coleman, junior-college transfer Tom Woldentensae and Sam Hauser, a transfer from Wisconsin who has to sit out this season under NCAA rules –– as well as redshirt freshman Francisco Caffaro.
The newcomers are all “hard workers,” Bennett said, “and all of them are showing inexperience at times. It’s a learning curve. It’s fast. There’s a lot of stuff. And then they’ve showed those flashes [when they’ve impressed], and it’s just trying to smooth those out and give them a crash course, because they’re going to be thrown into it.”
It’s not an ideal mix for a team opening on the road against a program of Syracuse’s stature, Bennett acknowledged, but the Wahoos are excited about the challenge.
“Whatever the outcome,” Bennett said, “you just grow from it and learn from it, but you get as ready as you can because you’re starting in conference play, and you want to, to the best of your abilities, get off to a good start.”
At this time last year, Bennett said, he had a good read on his team’s potential.
“This year I’m not as certain, and that’s just being fair and real,” he said. “I don’t know what our potential is this year. I’m always really critical as I watch [the team], but I’m always hopeful, and I know we’re going to need each other a lot, because it’s a different deal and there’s a lot of things coming at these guys.”
Bennett noted that “starting a new cycle” is part of the college game, and “that’s the challenge before us. We’ve just got to keep trying to figure out how we can be at our best with how we play offensively and defensively. There will be some growing pains. I know that. We’ve already experienced that in practice, and I’ve been on these guys pretty hard and pushing them. But I’m grateful for them, because they’ve got a lot on their plate.”
UNSUNG HERO: A transfer from Alabama, where he spent his first two years, the 6-8 Key played a supporting role, but a crucial one, in Virginia’s run to the program’s first NCAA title.
Used mostly off the bench, Key averaged only 19.8 minutes per game last season but led the Cavaliers in rebounding (5.3 per game) and was second in steals (38).
“He’s multi-faceted,” Bennett said. “He’s complete. He’s a good rebounder. He has a good feel.”
Asked about Key’s value to the team, Bennett said, “I start with the small things but the essential things. He’s a very good help defender like Isaiah [Wilkins], and we’re going to need him. His shot has improved, and he impacts the games in different ways. He’s not a 25-point-a-game guy. It’s just sort of the whole of his game and his versatility.”
His goal this season, Key said, is to be “a better leader, a guy who’ll lift everyone up, a guy who’ll do a little bit of everything. My game is not just scoring, not just rebounding.”
Key missed more layups than he would have liked in 2018-19, and he’s addressed that issue in the offseason. “My finishing has gotten a lot better,” he said, smiling. “I know a lot of fans will be happy to hear about that one.”
SUPER-SIZED: Of the Cavaliers who are eligible to play this season, six are listed at 6-8 or taller: Jay Huff (7-1), Francisco Caffaro (7-0), Shedrick (6-11), Diakite (6-9), Key (6-8), and McKoy (6-8).
“I think we’ll just have to pound teams on the boards and, I guess, play old-school basketball and throw it inside a little bit more,” Key said. “But if that’s what puts the ball in the basket, that’s what we’ll have to do.”
Three players made more than 29 3-pointers apiece for Virginia last season: Guy (120), Jerome (79), and Hunter (46). All three are gone.
“We’ve got some size [this season],” Bennett said, “and hopefully we’ll be able to play at times differently and not just live and die by the 3.”
It’ll be a more difficult shot this season. In the men’s college game, the 3-point line has been extended from 20 feet, 9 inches, to 22 feet, 1¾ inches.
“I think there will be an adjustment,” said Bennett, a record-setting 3-point shooter as a guard at Wisconsin-Green Bay.
“Right now we’re not near as good of a 3-point shooting team as we were last year … It doesn’t mean we won’t become a good one, and we do have guys that can make 3s. But for Kyle and Ty, that line didn’t matter, they’d shoot way beyond it. A lot of these guys, they’re right on that line, so all of the sudden you back it up and that changes it. That’s OK, but you have to know who you are and take good shots.”
FORMULA FOR SUCCESS: One of UVA’s constants under Bennett has been the Pack Line, a rugged man-to-man defense that frustrates most opponents. The Hoos had an abundance of talented offensive players in 2018-19, but their margin for error figures to be considerably smaller this season.
“I think last year we were a tough team, but I think we’re going to have to be tougher this year,” Key said, “just losing the offensive pieces that we had. You could always rely on Ty going for 20, Dre going for 20, Kyle going for 20. We had guys who could just go off.
“This year we have to be a tough team, limit teams to one shot, one possession, and then get back on defense. Our main thing will be defense this year.”
BRUISE BROTHER: The 6-11, 250-pound Salt became known for the jarring picks he’d set, both in practice and in games. The 7-0, 244-pound Caffaro, who’s from Argentina, is “Jack Salt 2.0,” Key said.
Diakite agreed. “He’s going to crack some bones this year.”
Caffaro, who grew up about 300 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, played soccer, rugby and volleyball and swam as a boy. He didn’t start playing basketball until January 2014.
“He’s so new to the game, but very physical,” Bennett said. “He’s unorthodox in the way he moves and plays. You’ll see that when you watch him, but he’s effective at times, and at times you see, man, he’s so new to it. But he loves contact. He’s just like Jack. He loves it, and every now and then you’ll see a guy get his spine realigned like Jack used to [do]. I’ll just smile, and he’s got people looking around with their heads on a swivel.”
FUEL FOR THE FIRE: Diakite had a breakout year in 2018-19, in part, he said Tuesday, because of the way the previous season ended for the Hoos.
In March 2018, Virginia became the first No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed, falling to UMBC in Charlotte, N.C.
“I think everything started when we lost against UMBC,” Diakite said, “and I’m carrying that, and hopefully all the other guys are still carrying it. I’m carrying that underneath my skin, and it drives me every time.”
Diakite, a native of Guinea, graduated from Blue Ridge School near Charlottesville. From the day he enrolled at UVA in 2015, it was clear that Diakite had tremendous physical tools. But he was new to the sport and didn’t make an immediate impact in Bennett’s program.
After redshirting in 2015-16, Diakite averaged 3.8 points per game in 2016-17. His scoring average rose to 5.4 ppg in 2017-18 and then to 7.4 ppg last season, when he started 22 games and led Virginia with 63 blocked shots. No other Cavalier had more than 25 blocks.
Diakite heads into his final college season as one of the nation’s most highly regarded post players.
“I just kept working, and I never gave up,” he said. “That’s the reason why whenever my name was called, I was ready to contribute.”
LITTLE BIG MAN: He graduated from high school in 2018 and has played only one season of college hoops, but Kihei Clark qualifies as one of the Cavaliers’ veterans.
The 5-9 point guard from the Los Angeles area averaged 26.8 minutes per game in 2018-19, and his role figures to grow this season.
As a freshman, Clark “kind of deferred a lot to the Big Three,” Key said, referring to Jerome, Guy and Hunter. “But this year he’s just been a lot more aggressive, finding himself and being more comfortable as the lead guard. With him and Ty, they kind of split the point guard duties. Now he has full control, and I think he’s doing a great job taking control of the team.”