By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– For head coach Tony Bennett, closed scrimmages against VCU (at John Paul Jones Arena) and Georgetown (at McDonough Arena in Washington, D.C.) this month provided additional insight into his 11th team at Virginia.
The Cavaliers, who open Wednesday night against ACC rival Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, look much different from the team that in April won the program’s first NCAA title. Gone are mainstays Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Jack Salt, and six newcomers have joined the team.
“I think everyone’s going to have to be ready,” Bennett said Wednesday during Virginia’s annual media day at JPJ. “We’re focused a little more on the things that we think are going to give us chances to be competitive to start and [be] as sound and tough-minded as we can be, and that’s a process.”
The coaches are trying, Bennett said, to “get everyone on the same page and understand the execution and tenacity that’s required to be a quality team.”
The 2018-19 Wahoos were especially formidable on the perimeter. With players such as 7-1 Jay Huff, 6-9 Mamadi Diakite and 6-8 Braxton Key, Bennett’s latest team has more experience in the frontcourt.
“This year at times we’re giving the Jays and Mamadis opportunities that weren’t as prevalent last year,” Bennett said. “We’re going to need more production from them as the season goes, and I think the younger guys will get a feel for where they can be aggressive and where they can’t.”
At the core of Bennett’s program is an unwavering commitment to the Pack Line defense, a rugged man-to-man that can suffocate opponents.
“My hope is we can be a sound defensive team, and then figure out ways to score with balance, inside, outside,” Bennett said. “That will be the key this year. Again, until you see guys in game settings, I think we won’t know for sure. But I think it’s everybody trying to push hard and not being too consumed with what happened last year or what’s expected this year. We’re [focused on]: Can we max out and be ready to go? It’s kind of that simple.”
With so many new players, Bennett said, UVA’s “practices have looked a little different this year at times, [with] a little more teaching. But I think it’s a team that has shown improvement from where we started to now, and I think there’s a lot more improvement [to come].”
WORK IN PROGRESS: UVA’s newcomers include Justin McKoy, Casey Morsell, Kadin Shedrick and Chase Coleman, freshmen who have been getting a crash course in the Pack Line, whose principles differ from those taught in many other systems.
“Like all of our first-years have been, it’s a hard-working group,” Bennett said. “They’re grasping it at times. The thing that comes over time defensively in any system, we talk about it a lot, is less thinking, more anticipation, being more continuous. Those are two really important words in any quality defense, that they can anticipate things and they play through stuff.
“When either you don’t have the reps or you’re a little uncertain, you either react more or hesitate, and not much defense is reaction nowadays. That’s why I think Syracuse’s zone has been good, and when we’ve been at our best defensively, it’s [because of the Cavaliers’] ability to read things quickly, and be that kind of anticipatory team. But those things are coming, and they’re certainly working their hardest at it, and some of those guys will get opportunities.”
CENTRAL FIGURE: After averaging 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds in 2018-19, as well as hitting in the Elite Eight perhaps the most memorable shot in program history, Diakite appears ready to take on a leading role.
“He’s worked very hard,” Bennett said of the fifth-year senior from Guinea. “He’s improved really all areas of his game. I think his shot is better. He’s scoring better. He’s a bit more continuous. He’s always been athletic. He can protect the rim, but I think he understands there’s going to be more opportunities for him. He’s trying to lead better.
“Seeing as this is his last year and all the experiences that he’s had, from having to be patient early on, having to be a big part of certain games, conference games, NCAA tournament games, and then going through the experience in the spring/summer of the draft process. All that has improved him. He’ll face things this year as a player for UVA that he has not faced in the past, being more of a marked man. … I’m excited for him. … He’s always full of life and energy, and I know he wants to lead this team to the best of his abilities.”
WAITING GAME: The Cavaliers’ most gifted offensive player might be Sam Hauser, a 6-9 forward who under NCAA rules has to sit out this season.
Hauser transferred to UVA from Marquette, where as a junior he averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds in 2018-19. He shot 40.2 percent from 3-point range.
“It makes you get excited about him for the future, of course,” Bennett said, “and hopefully he’ll really work hard and develop his game and do what guys have done in the past in that situation: do whatever he can to serve the team and make [teammates] better and improve his game in the process. And he’s actually been leading, too, which I like. He’s been talking to the young guys, and he’s seeing things, and he’s definitely getting more comfortable.”
Hauser is from Stevens Point, Wis., where UVA assistant Brad Soderberg also grew up and where Bennett spent part of his childhood. Hauser knows his patience will be tested this season.
“It hasn’t been bad right now, because the games haven’t kicked in yet,” Hauser said, “but starting next week when the games start rolling, it’s going to be tough sitting on the sidelines watching and not being able to be out there impacting the game. But I know it’s all part of a process, and I know there’s going to be a bright light at the end of it. So I’m just looking forward to working on my game this year and getting better.
“I need to get better on defense, and then I think I can get better with the ball and ballhandling, and just being able to create for myself a little better. It’s great to have a year to do that and refine my game, so I’m excited to do that.”
NONSTOP: Of the players who’ve come through Bennett’s program at UVA, Justin Anderson might have had the biggest personality. The 6-8, 221-pound McKoy, who’s from Cary, N.C., could challenge Anderson in that area.
“I would say he’s Justin Anderson times five, basically,” Diakite said when asked about McKoy.
McKoy carries that energy level over to the court. “My coach in high school always stressed to me how important it was to play with a high motor,” he said, “and I’ve always just taken that and held it dear and just always done it every time I got out on the court.”
Bennett said McKoy “just plays really hard and works … and he’s had some real good stretches. Not afraid. He’s got an aggressive nature and is not afraid of contact.”
Another UVA freshman, 6-11 Kadin Shedrick, is from Raleigh, N.C. He’s one of McKoy’s former AAU teammates.
“Huge competitor,” Shedrick said. “He loves basketball.”
The biggest challenge for him so far, McKoy said, has been learning the Pack Line. “There’s a lot of principles in it. Basketball is not about white and black. There’s a lot of gray area in it, so I’m just learning that stuff, and a lot of it is getting a feel for it.”
NO DECISION YET: Shedrick could end up redshirting, Bennett said, but that “hasn’t been finalized yet.” Shedrick is not opposed to the idea.
“I think it’s a great thing to be able to take a year to develop, gain weight, get stronger, and still have [that year of eligibility] as well, so not waste that time,” Shedrick said. “So whenever we come to a decision, I’ll be OK with whichever way it goes.”
Shedrick, a graduate of Holly Springs High School, stood 6-2 at the start of his freshman basketball season. A year later, he was 6-8, and he struggled initially with his body’s changes.
“My sophomore year of basketball was pretty rough, but as I continued to get used to it, I’ve gotten a lot better with it,” Shedrick said, “So I’ve been gaining coordination and stuff.”
When he arrived at UVA in June, Shedrick weighed 208 pounds. He’s up to 218.
“He’s just scratching the surface,” Bennett said.
GOOD TIMING: A graduate of Maury High in Norfolk, the 5-9, 154-pound Coleman picked the right season to join the UVA program as a recruited walk-on. Sophomore Kihei Clark is the only other true point guard on the roster.
“I looked at it a lot, because I knew that they were losing a lot of people,” said Coleman, whose mother is a UVA alumna. “So despite me being a walk-on, I knew I would be able to learn on the court and possibly have a chance to play too if I did well.
“I just feel like if I do my role and play the right way, then everything will fall in place. My parents tell me to pray a lot and just do what I do best and let everything else fall in place.”
Coleman’s brother, Matt, is a former UVA recruiting target who now plays at Texas.
“I’ll just say that he’s happy for me,” Chase said. “He made his decision based off what he thought was best for him, and he’s glad that I made my decision based off what’s best for me.”
CHANGE IN PROTOCOL: For games at JPJ, gates will open 60 minutes before tipoff this season. In previous seasons, the gates opened 90 minutes before tipoff.