You know you want it. Here it is. Tipoff is, as of typing this sentence, 8 days and 21 and a half hours from now. UVa basketball is a legitimately elite team. The media and coaches both ranked the Hoos #6 to start the season; one intrepid member of the media poll decided they should be #1. KenPom starts them off 3rd. Nobody finds this strange anymore.
UVA is staring down a familiar ACC - one in which Duke and UNC are again the primary threats to world domination and VT is hot garbage but this year will be improvement you guys - and one of the toughest out-of-conference schedules of anyone in the nation. December kicks off with a trip to Columbus, Ohio, and later a three-game stretch against West Virginia, Villanova, and Cal. Worthy opponents will also be found in Charleston for the usual preseason tournament, which hopefully culminates in a championship game against Oklahoma State.
The 30-second shot clock this year, down from 35, almost certainly means it'll be much harder for Tony Bennett's famous defense to ring up freak-show scores like 45-26 or 57-28, or hold opponents to eight points in a half. But it could also mean some larger margins of victory; if you can't score in 35 seconds on this defense, a shorter time limit isn't likely to help.
We'll start off here with a three-part series on the players themselves, which is as per usual except usually it's a two-part series. Three this year, which you shouldn't read anything into except the fact that it takes a really long time to type this stuff up. Because his number comes first in the alphabet, we start with....
#0 - Devon Hall - rSo. PG
Life's not easy as the tenth player in Tony's 9.5-man rotation. You have to have the mindset of a relief pitcher. Nobody, absolutely nobody, comes out of high school thinking that way. Devon Hall redshirted, then spent last year bouncing between long stretches on the bench and long stretches on the court. He started the first game while London Perrantes served a suspension, then saw his minutes vaporize when ACC season rolled around, then jumped right back in when Justin Anderson was hurt near the end of the year, then played zero minutes in all postseason games.
Anderson is in the League now, but the backcourt minutes aren't much less logjammed. Hall looks once again like the sixth player in the rotation for three spots' worth of minutes. Much depends on his offseason improvements - more so than anyone else in the backcourt. Hall wasn't a force on offense last year; he struggled from the free-throw line in limited opportunities, didn't force opponents to account for his outside shooting, and missed too many two-pointers as well. The offense never ran through him; instead it occasionally ended up in his area.
Anderson averaged about 28 minutes a game, but it's not hard to envision that being taken up by Marial Shayok (maybe ten extra minutes), Darius Thompson (fifteen?) and Evan Nolte, who is after all a senior. Hall wasn't a standout on defense last year, but he played it well enough to be inserted into the lineup with little hesitation. He's going to have to show something on offense to nose his way onto the court. It's a delicate balance between asserting yourself enough and too much, and Hall needs to find it early if he's going to stick in the rotation. If he can do that, his size will be a real asset and help to make UVA a truly imposing presence with one of the biggest backcourts in the nation. Otherwise, he'll spend another year picking up the scraps and making it difficult to tell what exactly he does well.
#4 - Marial Shayok - So. SG
College basketball teams have to reinvent themselves a little bit every year. They lose some unique talents to transfer, graduation, or the draft; new faces arrive; old faces add new talents. Case in point: Justin Anderson finding a three-point shot. One of my favorite things about new basketball seasons is finding out how the new rotation meshes, how the chemistry equation sorts out, and most especially, unwrapping the new surprises. With Tony Bennett the latter is better than ever, because amazing coaching means major offseason improvements.
All that in mind, here's the holdover player I'm most excited to see this year. Marial Shayok is a big reason why the Devon Hall preview was so pessimistic. Generally, the upperclassmen are what they are. Shayok is, potentially, a lot of things. Last year he came in billed as a very versatile player, and delivered 100% on that promise. Lot of tools in his toolbox; he's a very skilled defender, and can score a bunch of different ways.
One thing I'd like to see most is either better mid-range shooting, or a lot less of it. Shayok can hit the three and he's one of the team's best finishers at the rim. His 62.5% percentage at the rim (according to Hoop-Math) is big-man-esque. He can achieve a huge boost in efficiency by focusing on the shots with much higher reward potential, or he can level up even more in versatility by improving his mid-range game to, say, 30-35% instead of the ugly 23.5% he shot last year.
Shayok, obviously, isn't Justin Anderson's equal athletically - very few are. But he's got a great feel for the game. He's a Swiss Army knife of a basketball player, not easily pigeonholed into a particular position. His many skills, though, are still raw and undeveloped. Whichever of those skills he improved most over the offseason will not only help himself find well-deserved playing time, but more importantly, it'll determine what chemistry combinations work best in this year's experiment.
#10 - Mike Tobey - Sr. C
Everyone's favorite enigma, a senior at last and hopefully ready to come blasting out of his shell. Sort of - because I'm one who maintains there isn't much of a shell, just a talented center developing at about the usual pace for a center. Tobey has a lot of strong points that show up very loud and clear on a stat sheet - or at least the KenPom kind of sheet.
To start with, he was the third-most efficient player on last year's team, ahead of big names like Brogdon. This had a lot to do with his very low turnover rate and quality free-throw shooting, two traits it's incredibly difficult to find in a big man. He was also the team's best rebounder from the efficiency point of view and in fact one of the better ones in the country.
Tobey's detractors want him to "play with more fire," as his game doesn't come off very intense. You might get a few more blocks that way (and a few more fouls) and he might get to the line a bit more, maybe a little better shooting percentage. You wouldn't get much extra rebounding, though, because he already does that very well, and his defense wouldn't show it, because he can already neutralize most players his size and isn't quick enough to be a major stopping force against power forwards.
You can make a case, though, that Tobey is the best true center in the ACC. Other players have a case, too - think Tonye Jekiri of Miami, Landry Nnoko of Clemson - but the thing is, Tobey's best games come against those specific players. Tobey abuses teams who defend him with other centers - and quickly picks up fouls when he doesn't have other centers to defend against and has to go against power forwards instead.
So if there's anything I want to see out of him in his senior year, it's not "more fire." He is what he is. And he doesn't need fire to beat up on other centers on both ends of the court. Rather, I'd like to see him be able to hang in there longer against players like Zach Auguste, who's not a true center but can bang around inside just enough and out-quick Tobey with the ball. He's got to be able to contribute more against teams who go relatively small inside, because UVA can't simply answer with Darion Atkins anymore.
#11 - Evan Nolte - Sr. SF
Another enigma - which is sort of weird for a pair of seniors. Nolte looked like he was on the outs halfway through last year, with only a few token minutes a game. Then, like Hall, he appeared back in the rotation with a vengeance when Justin got hurt - and unlike Hall, stuck even when Anderson returned.
Before that Louisville game, he was 7-for-35 shooting three pointers. Horrendous, and a glaring problem, because that's what he was in the game to do. In the last one-third of the season he was 14-for-41 - much, much better, and there were two consecutive games there where he was 0-for-8, so outside that little blip, he shot 42%. It lends credence to the idea that you can expect his shot to be much better this year.
Nolte also figured out how to be a very consistent defender, adopting an awkward-looking defensive stance that works like a damn charm. He will never, ever get a steal out of his on-ball defense, but more power to you if you can recall anyone getting past him once he got down in that duck stance. He also formed a bridge between frontcourt and backcourt, playing the four on occasion. While Nolte at the four and Tobey at the five is a combination that will happen exactly never, putting Nolte at power forward is a great way to punish an opponent for going too big - particularly if he's hitting from outside.
I doubt there's much evolution left in Nolte's game. His defense is fine. He's not going to light up the stat sheet, but he's far, far from a liability. He's not going to go with his back to the basket unless someone tries to guard him with a 6'2" shooting guard. The only real variable here is the three-point shooting, which comes and goes for almost everyone. If he's hitting, great. Really great. If he's not, he needs to keep bombing away until he is. It would be hard to be worse than he was at the beginning of last year, so just a little regression to the mean is all he really needs.