CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — In mid-September, Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett and the vast majority of his players from last season’s team celebrated winning their first national championship during a ceremony at John Paul Jones Arena that included receiving their rings and raising a banner.
Soon after, juniors Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome and redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter were gone, all off to the NBA, leaving a program that just completed a historic run facing a dearth of scoring and depth, not to mention leadership and other intangibles.
The turnover means Bennett is set to roll out a starting lineup for Wednesday night’s opener at Syracuse with three players who combined to start six games last season, in addition to sophomore point guard Kihei Clark and redshirt senior Mamadi Diakite.
“I think you rely on the guys that have experience, and then it’s just through opportunities and getting thrown in the fire, so to speak, where you’ll learn and grow as it happens,” Bennett said. “Of course, I’ve said it so many times: There’s no substitute for experience.”
That made the calming influence of Clark and Diakite that much more important in preseason practices, according to Bennett, who called Clark a “grizzled vet” even though he’s in his second year.
Clark started 20 games last season, allowing Jerome to play off the ball for long stretches, and emerged as one of Bennett’s most trusted underclassmen.
Diakite turned in some of his most memorable performances during the NCAA tournament, including an improbable tying jumper at the buzzer in regulation against Purdue in the regional final on the way to an 80-75 triumph that became one of the season’s indelible moments.
Clark had a hand in the sequence, gathering the loose ball in a mad dash to midcourt and delivering the pass that led to Diakite’s shot. Moments earlier, Diakite had tapped the ball out following Jerome making the first of two free throw attempts.
“I don’t feel a lot of pressure,” Diakite said. “I see it as a challenge. Before Ty, Kyle and De’Andre, many other leaders have been here and had to pass it down to the next generation. I wouldn’t say I’m the next generation. We’re in the same year. They just left early, but I like the challenge. I want to see what happens, what will be the result at the end of the season.”
Diakite also entered his name in the draft before withdrawing when told his game could use additional polish. But he indicated he learned a great deal from pre-draft workouts, including becoming more proficient at handling the ball and decision-making.
As the most physical post player back this season for the Cavaliers, Diakite (6-foot-9, 224 pounds) is tasked with replacing the presence of Jack Salt, last season’s starting center who gained admiration not only from teammates for setting rugged screens but also from Virginia fans for diving for loose balls.
Jay Huff, a 7-1 forward, also played meaningful minutes in the frontcourt, where his length was a factor on defense. But the redshirt junior at times dazzled with acrobatic dunks while also creating space within the offense thanks to his three-point shooting ability.
Among Cavaliers with at least 30 3-point attempts last season, Huff made a team-best 45.2%.
“A lot doesn’t change,” Bennett said. “I think everyone’s going to have to be ready, but we’re focused a little more on the things we think are going to give us chances to be competitive to start and as sound and tough-minded as we can be, and again that’s a process. It’s trying to get everyone on the same page and trying to understand the execution and the tenacity that’s required to be a quality team.”
Among the more promising newcomers has been freshman combo guard Casey Morsell, from St. John’s in the District of Columbia. In the preseason, Morsell played off the ball when paired with Clark in the backcourt and was the primary ballhandler in other instances.
Morsell’s commitment to sound defensive principles drew elevated interest from Bennett in the recruiting process. During his senior season with the Cadets, Morsell blocked a shot to secure a win against DeMatha that sent St. J ohn’s to the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship game.
Still, it’s a cavernous leap from high school defense to understanding the nuances of Bennett’s renowned “Pack Line.”
“The transition’s been smooth,” Morsell said. “The coaches do a great job of actually teaching it and walking you through it, and also the players. I remember when I first got here, Mamadi, we went to the gym, and he taught me the ‘Pack Line,’ how to be effective in the ‘Pack Line,’ so that aspect of the game has been smooth.”