Photo: Tony Bennett
CHARLOTTE -- What a difference a year makes in college basketball and there is no better example these days than Virginia coach Tony Bennett and his team.
The Cavaliers showed up for this year’s ACC Operation Basketball media day on Tuesday in Charlotte as NCAA defending champions. If anyone forgot, the ACC office was proud to have the NCAA trophy on display in the Marriott City Center lobby as a reminder.
Now, think back to a year ago, when Virginia knew it had to face the music of its painful experience as the first NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed. And the Cavs had to do it at the same venue, the Spectrum Center in Charlotte. The site hosted the ignominious regional loss to Baltimore-Maryland County as well as 2018 ACC media day.
Bennett was so cognizant of the possible emotional toll he gave the two players selected for media day, Jack Salt and Kyle Guy, the option of staying home if it was too painful.
But no one was hanging their head that day. Bennett, Salt and Guy met the questions head on, explaining how they needed to grow from it.
And this year, with seniors Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key representing the Cavs, no one’s head was in the clouds. They explained\ this is a new year.
“I'm very thankful for what transpired,” Bennett said. “I think it's been a process, and just like after the 2018 season, it was an amazing year and obviously a hard one from a basketball stand point. But we grew from it. We didn't hide from it. We addressed it. But we didn't obsess about it, and I think the same holds true with this last year.
“We're very thankful for it. We'll grow from it. We celebrated it and have enjoyed it, but we won't obsess about it, nor will we just sweep it under the rug and say that was then. I think you don't overdo either of them. You learn from them and you're thankful for what both extremes teach you.
“And to get to go through it with these guys, I'm just glad that they have this memory, as our staff does, of winning a championship from last year, but I think because of how we lost the year before, it made us value it even more.”
Another new identity for Virginia basketball in 2019-20 is rebuilding its roster after losing three players to the NBA draft. Virginia is an ACC power as a developmental program, winning with juniors and seniors that have grown into their roles and potential. The Cavs don’t attract one-and-done players.
Redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter was taken as the fourth pick, junior Ty Jerome as the 24th and junior Kyle Guy a second rounder as the 55th pick.
Two starters that return are Mamadi Diakite, a 6-foot-9, 224-pounder that averaged 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds, and sophomore Kihei Clark (5-9, 163), who averaged 4.5 points and 2.6 assists.
Braxton Key (6-8, 230) also returns having started six games and playing 19.8 minutes per game with 5.7 points and 5.3 rebounds. He wasn’t cleared for eligibility until a couple weeks before the season after he transferred from Alabama.
“I think we've been successful at Virginia because guys have grown and they've gotten into their upperclassmen years,” Bennett said. “We rely on the upperclassmen that are in our program, but there is a lot being lost. You can't deny how good Dre and Ty and Kyle were, and Jack Salt.
“So we’re rebuilding, starting a new cycle. However, the beauty of college basketball is you can be good with inexperienced guys and enough experience, and that's the challenge before us.”
Another difference from past Virginia teams that will stand out is height. Jay Huff (7-1, 243) returns as a redshirt junior. Huff has been able to hit from three-point range while adding strength and weight since he redshirted his first year on campus in 2016-17.
Two incoming big men are true freshman Kadin Shedrick (6-11, 214), a 4-star recruit considered a late bloomer with a high ceiling, and redshirt freshman Francisco Caffaro (7-1, 244).
“I think when you have size, you want to be good on the glass,” Bennett said. “You want to at times use their strengths, and defensively be good in all areas. I think the physicality and the size factor is definitely one of our strengths, and our front court.”
Virginia lost three players to the NBA draft, but national championship rosters have more than two players. Diakite and Key are seniors that return to fulfill the program model of upperclassmen leading the team.
“A lot of leadership is on us,” Key said. “We have to lead the younger guys and mold them and get them ready for -- like Coach said -- the start line.”
The defending champions have a new look, but they’re taking the same approach.
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