Tony Bennett and Virginia are hoping to build off last season's success.
The Cavaliers also are coming off their best season in decades, and despite two huge losses in Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, there's still the chance for Virginia to be even better than last year.
Harris (12 ppg) was the scoring threat that made the offense work, and Mitchell (6.8 ppg, 7 rpg) was the emotional and defensive leader who made up for others' mistakes. There are numerous players ready to take on those roles, and Bennett says how it all plays out will determine the Cavaliers' fortunes.
Perhaps the key to it all is guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led Virginia last year with a 12.7 scoring average and will team with returning point guard London Perrantes to provide an elite backcourt tandem.
Maintaining the hunger that brought them to new heights last season will be critical, he said.
"I think we make ourselves aware that we have a target on our back this season and we need to go at people the way they are going to go at us," the redshirt junior said this week. "As long as we can ignore the distractions and expectations, I think we're going to have a very successful season."
Even without Mitchell, Bennett has 6-foot-11 Mike Tobey and forwards Anthony Gill and Darion Atkins to try to provide the frontcourt points and rebounds that Mitchell brought, and guard Justin Anderson to lead the way defensively and with spotty offensive firepower that Bennett hopes will be more consistent.
Bennett said last season was fun, but not something the Cavaliers can rely on repeating.
"I think it would be a big mistake to try to compare us to last year's team," Bennett said. "I think the key really is, and I told them this, that to realize as a group we are a different team."
Here are things to watch with Virginia this season:
TOBEY'S TOUGHNESS: At 6-11, center Mike Tobey might have the biggest upside of any player on the Cavaliers' roster. He's smooth around the basket, can shoot with either hand, and can even knock down an occasional 3-pointer. If he embraces the physicality needed to play inside, he'll become a star.
MAKING SHOTS: There were times last season when Joe Harris couldn't make a shot, but the threat of him knocking down the next one, and several more in rapid succession, forced teams to pay great attention to him. Bennett hopes another year of experience will mean more consistency from several players who can hurt teams from the perimeter, and that that ability might again free things to make the offense thrive.
REPLACING AKIL: Mitchell was among the ACC's best defenders last season, and his knack for the big stop, or big rebound, was crucial to Virginia's success. Anderson has demonstrated a similar defensive knack, and will need to be part of a multiplayer solution to providing all that Mitchell provided.
UNSELFISH: London Perrantes was predisposed to distribute the ball last season, but showed a knack for knocking down 3-pointers when teams backed off. Bennett insisted all season that the freshman was a better shooter from beyond the arc than he showed, and he could help greatly by proving that this season.
EXPECTATIONS: Virginia's best season in decades included their first outright ACC regular season title in 33 yards, their first conference tournament title in 38 yards and their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 1995. Their 30-7 record earned Bennett a new contract, and made expectations for this season higher than they have been in years. Managing those expectations will be key to having a chance to repeat.
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