(March 10, 2019)
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– In 2018, after winning the ACC men’s basketball tournament, Virginia unceremoniously exited the NCAA tournament with a first-round loss. A year later, after falling in the ACC tournament semifinals, the Cavaliers went on to capture their first NCAA title.
Clearly, there’s no definite correlation between a team’s performance in the two competitions. But that doesn’t mean Virginia will prepare any differently for this ACC tournament, which began Tuesday with two games in Greensboro, N.C.
Virginia, the No. 2 seed, has a double bye and won’t play until Thursday. UVA (23-7) will meet No. 7 seed Notre Dame (19-12) or No. 10 seed Boston College (13-18) in the 7 p.m. quarterfinal at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“You just want to play at this time of year as well as you can,” head coach Tony Bennett told reporters Tuesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena. “So much is about the matchups, who’s hot, who’s playing well. So I think it’s the same way of preparing. Prepare as well as you can. It’s kind of similar to the NCAA tournament with the short turnarounds, but the mindset doesn’t change.”
The Cavaliers enter the postseason as the ACC’s hottest team. At one point in January, the Wahoos stood at 4-4 in conference play, but they closed the regular season with eight straight victories, including wins at JPJ over top-10 opponents Duke and Louisville.
When the team was struggling, some questioned whether UVA would advance to the NCAA tournament for the seventh straight season. Fifth-year senior Mamadi Diakite says the Hoos paid little attention to such talk.
“That’s the reason why we’re here right now,” said Diakite, who on Monday was named to the All-ACC second team and the All-ACC defensive team. “We focused on those areas we could improve. We improved them, and we got right back in the game, and it’s taken every little inch of focus to pull it out at the end.”
The Hoos may be reigning NCAA champions, but many of the players who led them to that title are now earning paychecks as professionals. Bennett wants the 2019-20 Cavaliers to realize that.
“This year’s team, it’s their year, it’s their team, it’s not last year’s team,” Bennett said.
And so, Bennett said, he’s urged his players to “try to lay it on the line and forget about what the outside is or even the internal of trying to live up to something that is not yours. ‘This is our year, this is our time. Let’s max out.’ “
ANXIOUS TIMES: With his native Italy on lockdown because of COVID-19 (coronavirus), junior swingman Tomas Woldetensae is following the news closely.
“Back home it’s pretty rough,” Woldetensae said. “There’s a lot of confusion and chaos. People are just scared, because all of the information that we receive, it’s just so compelling, and it seems everything is going wrong.”
Woldetensae is from Bologna, in northern Italy, and he said his immediate family there––his mother, his aunt and his cousin––are in good health.
NEW EXPERIENCE: Woldetensae relocated from Italy to Florida for his final two years of high school, then spent two years at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa before transferring to UVA last summer.
Not only has he never played in the ACC tournament, he’s never watched it on TV.
“This is all new, but that’s how I like it,” said Woldetensae, who’s started 22 games. ” So my mind is not thinking too much, and I’m just out there to play basketball, the sport that we love.”
The 6-5 Woldetensae has made a team-high 52 3-pointers, and twice he’s hit seven treys in a game. He went 4 for 22 from beyond the arc, however, in Virginia’s final four regular-season games.
“My confidence is still there,” he said. “I’ve just got to adjust to the way [opponents] now know who I am and what I do. So I’ve just got to adjust to the game and the way I’m being guarded.”
Woldetensae has found other ways to contribute when his shot has been off.
“When he was shooting it well, I thought it was huge for us,” Bennett said, “and [one of the reasons] why we started winning and playing better. But he’s a good passer, has a very good feel and I do think his defense is improving.”
The Cavaliers’ Pack Line defense is not easy to master, but Woldetensae is “sliding better on the ball,” Bennett said. “His positioning off the ball and his anticipation have improved and if you watch, he’s gotten his hands on a lot of balls, deflections … You go against so many good offensive players, you need help defense, and I think he’s embraced trying to be as good as he can be on that end.”
TRYING SEASON: In his second year at UVA, 6-7 sophomore Kody Stattmann has dealt with an illness that sidelined him for four games, a concussion that cost him two games, back problems and a broken nose.
“It happens in sports,” said Stattmann, who’s from Australia. “That’s what comes with it, so you just have to mentally be prepared for that kind of stuff, and since we’ve got the best guys, [athletic trainer] Ethan [Saliba] and [strength and conditioning coach] Mike Curtis, to look after us, we know we’re going to be fine.”
He started two of UVA’s first three games and then, after recovering from his illness, eight of the next 11. Then came a collision with freshman guard Casey Morsell in practice, a head clash that left Stattmann with a concussion and a broken nose. In the 10 games his return, Stattmann has come off the bench.
For the season, he’s averaging 3.6 points and 2.4 rebounds per game. He has 10 blocked shots and nine steals in his 24 games.
“It’s been a lot of ups and downs,” Stattmann said, “but I think I’m finally starting to come through.”
Like Woldetensae, Stattmann has improved dramatically at the defensive end since enrolling at UVA.
“I can slide my feet a lot better now,” Stattmann said. “Also, just getting rebounds as well, I think that comes with body weight and getting more athletic. I think I’ve come a long way, because coming in I was pretty bad at it, because back home I didn’t really do it much. I was more there to play offense.”
Stattmann is among the Cavaliers who are not always “out there for large periods of time,” Bennett said, “but, boy, when they grab a rebound, get a stop, make a key basket or an assist, that’s huge, because our games [have been so close].
“So I’ve seen Kody do that, I think Kody’s improved, but he’s got to keep developing physically. He’s in his second year.”
The key for Stattmann, Bennett said, is to keep “improving his consistency with his skill development and shooting. He has good feel, can handle the ball, deceptively athletic. So I just think continuing to improve his game in all aspects, and he’s getting very valuable experience in the situations he’s in. And sometimes he’s in there late, it just depends. Sometimes he’s not.”
SHINING STAR: Diakite, long a fan favorite at JPJ, is nearing the end of a college career during which he’s grown tremendously as a player and a person.
A native of Guinea, Diakite began visiting UVA as a student at nearby Blue Ridge School, where he played in the 11th and 12th grades.
“Mamadi is a unique player and person,” Bennett said. “His joy for life, his enthusiasm is contagious. There’s some similarities to [former UVA standout] Justin Anderson. It’s big. You walk in the room and he’s always just bopping around, he’s smiling, he’s got life and you love that, and he’s matured and he’s seen a lot and been through a lot. His story.”
UVA played at Virginia Tech late last month, and Bennett approached Diakite after the team’s shootaround at Cassell Coliseum.
“He and I just walked around the court as guys were putting their shoes on to get on the bus,” Bennett said, “and I just talked to him.”
Bennett smiled. “I’m sorry if I repeated this story, but we walked around and I just thanked him for choosing us and [told him] what he’s meant to the program. We just talked, and I said, `Your story is amazing.’ ”
The 6-9 Diakite leads the Cavaliers in scoring, and he’s second on the team in rebounds and blocked shots.
IRONMAN: Sophomore point guard Kihei Clark, a third-team All-ACC selection, is averaging 37.1 minutes per game, by far the most of any UVA player.
“I believe he’s like the Energizer bunny,” Bennett said. “It doesn’t mean he doesn’t get fatigued, but he just goes and goes.”
Whenever possible, Bennett tries to sneak in a little rest for Clark during games, usually around media timeouts, and in practice.
“We’ve tried to do that in the latter part of this conference season to find ways for him and some of the guys to be rested but also prepared well,” Bennett said.
WAITING GAME: Two Cavaliers are sitting out this season: Sam Hauser, a transfer from Marquette, and Kadin Shedrick, a freshman who’s redshirting.
“It’s definitely made me want to get out here more,” said Shedrick, a 6-11 center from Raleigh, N.C. “I’m trying to be as patient as I can with it. It helps to have Sam going through it with me.”
Shedrick is the latest in a long line of players who have redshirted during Bennett’s 11 seasons as Virginia’s coach. Others include Devon Hall, De’Andre Hunter and Jack Salt, as well as three of Shedrick’s teammates: Diakite, Francisco Caffaro and Jay Huff.
“It makes me feel good to know I’m not the only one that has gone through this same process,” Shedrick said, “and for a lot of the guys in front of me, it’s turned out really well for them. That’s always something that I think about, so it relieves a lot of the stress that comes with it.”
Huff, a 7-1 redshirt junior, said he tries to encourage teammates who are redshirting or who might not be playing as much as they’d like.
“Obviously, sometimes it’s just the same old clichés that I used to hear, like ‘Stay ready,’ which got super old,” Huff said. “I think it means more coming from a teammate who’s been through it than it does a coach with the same intentions but isn’t playing anymore. It’s different coming from your peers.”
Shedrick, who weighed 208 pounds when he enrolled at UVA last June, got up to 222 last week, he said.
He’s not done filling out. “By the end of summer I want to be at 225 consistently, and by the first game [of 2020-21] at 230 consistently, hopefully,” Shedrick said.