Just a quick Q-n-A with the boys to help tip off college basketball season for the Hoos.
Question 1: What are your general expectations for this season?
Mike: Obviously the ACC is going to be tough this year (we are ranked 9 in the AP poll, putting us 4th in the ACC) but I fully expect us to compete and potentially win the league again this season. Virginia is, and I think will always be, a very unique case in the ACC and probably the entire country. We have a team laden with upperclassmen this season which is something you never see at Power 5 schools. I fully expect that to play into our hands and we win more than our fair share of games by not panicking when down by 10 or so and making a comeback and watching younger teams implode around us. We also play the kind of game that will bury those young teams who I don’t think will be equipped to handle it.
Pierce: My expectation is World Domination, obviously. But really, I think we've seen Bennett's system will/should produce a consistent and competitive product, now that the roster has talent (and players who have bought into the system). Yes we lost an incredible amount of talent in both Joe and Akil, but there's no reason there should be much of a step back. I expect that there will be a couple of annoying losses along the way (particularly, say, before Christmas), but this team should be top-4 in the ACC, challenge for the league title and hopefully a favorable route to another sweet 16 berth.
Kendall: My general expectation is to see another season of really great, entertaining, winning basketball. It's weird to me that we've officially arrived. I don't really know how to handle not having anything to bitch about! No, but seriously, I won't say 'Sweet Sixteen or bust,' but I do think the dart will hit the board somewhere between the Round of 32 and the Final Four. That's after another top-4 ACC finish and at least a decent run in the ACC Tournament.
Question 2: Malcolm Brogdon will be our leading scorer. Who is #2? #3?
Mike: I’ll get bold for a minute. I actually think Anthony Gill has a real chance to lead this team in scoring. He really impressed down the stretch, led mostly by his ability to score on the block and out in midrange. That kind of versatility is going to make him a real threat, especially with defenses focusing on Brogdon. I think Good London will be our #3 guy, especially with the confidence from deep he showed late in the year.
Pierce: For me, it's hard to say another wing here. Nolte's never done it consistently and while Justin Anderson should benefit from starting (despite being the greatest 6th man in the history of the sport...okay, well maybe just at the collegiate level), I'm not sure any part of the offense is regularly going to go through him. Naming two bigs is equally difficult, considering the obvious 3-man rotation that they'll go though, but if I had to guess, I'm actually going to go with #2 Gill and #3 Tobey. Both will play a ton every game, both have solid offensive ability, both make their free-throws, and really I think we'll see the front-court as a consistent and purposeful focus of the offense.
Kendall: I think Anthony Gill is the obvious answer. However, I think he finishes #3 in scoring, behind Brogdon and... Justin Anderson. There, I said it. Simba becomes the Lion King this season. I say he improves on last year's 29% shooting from deep, and turns increased playing time into increased scoring punch. Mike Tobey is #4, by the way, and he'll have a number of 15-18+ point "boom" games.
Question 3: Will the defense be better or worse than last season? Explain.
Mike: Worse, but still awesome. Losing two guys with four years in the system will take its toll. As the season goes on I expect the defense to greatly improve, but replacing Joe and especially Akil on the defensive end is going to be tough. The keys in this area for me are Marial Shayock and Darion Atkins. Hopefully Atkins can shake the Eeyore mentality. Someone is going to need to replace the fire we lost with Akil.
Pierce: Worse. Record-breaking quality doesn't happen often. It's been said a million times by UVa fans/writers, but I'll say it again: Akil Mitchell played un-freaking-believable defense. I trust the packline and I still have faith in our talent, but no one is going to replicate what Akil brought - not to mention Joe Harris' ever-underrated defense. I suspect we'll still be great at defense, no reason not to think so, really - but last year may have been as close to the pinnacle as we'll see.
Kendall: No one on the current roster will be able to replicate Akil's ability to hedge at the top of the key and then teleport back under the basket, so I'll say the D will be a little bit worse. Still, trading Joe for Justin Anderson in the starting lineup, and adding long, athletic players like Devon Hall and Marial Shayok to the mix could improve the peripherals of Packline. Ultimately, I'll say the D will be about the same -- improved defensive rebounding (via JA seeing starter's minutes and these new bouncy athletes) equals improved defense in a lot of ways.
Question 4: Which games are you most looking forward to?
Mike: VCU and Maryland are obviously my top 2 out of conference games. Hope we beat them by a combined 40 points. In conference I really look forward to the games where TB has a chance to go up against the coaching legends. Duke, Syracuse and now Louisville. I love the idea that we have one of the bright young basketball minds who can go toe to toe with the titans of the game. Plus it’s fun to beat them.
Pierce: @VCU and @Maryland. Neither game matters in the grand scheme of things - won't affect the ACC at all and neither would be a résumé-damning loss (and honestly, neither would be that much of a résumé-boosting win). But both games are rivalries - one for obvious historic reasons and the other for state-supremacy-revenge reasons. I'm a petty braggart at heart in my basketball fandom - I'll be more nervous and anxious for these games than the league games - which I guess is my version of "excited?"
Kendall: You guys covered the hate games agaisnt VCU and Maryland, and Mike touched on the Duke/Cuse/L'Ville games, so I'll add my $0.02 by mentioning North Carolina on February 2 and Virginia Tech on January 25 and February 28. UNC is just another game against a quality ACC rival. Those games against VT are going to be a great opportunities to pound those turkeys into the ground, and I hope we shame and embarrass Buzz Williams as much as we possibly can. Let's burn their barn to the ground on 1/25. But the games I'm MOST looking forward to are the games we'll be playing in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, all six of them!
Question 5: Which newcomer(s) are you most looking forward to seeing?
Mike: Devon Hall. I assume he counts as a newcomer. Massively heralded prospect coming out of high school seems to have been forgotten about with the emergence of Good London last season. I think this is the first taste we will get of the future of UVA basketball with the dual point guard lineups, like we will See with Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome in the 2016 class. Devon Hall is a long point guard and could be an absolute monster defensively.
Pierce: Well, Shayok is rumored to be the best/most-ready now, Wilkins shatters backboards, Salt is 40 feet tall, and anyone with last name Stith is already UVA royalty - so that's a tough call. I'll have to go with Stith for nostalgia's sake. Plus he's so smiley, he's like mini-Justin Anderson. Can we play them at the same time? Would they have separate-but-related powers of optimism and charm a la The Carebears? Or maybe combine into some sort of good-vibes-Voltron? I'm excited to find out.
Kendall: The correct answer is B.J. Stith. He might redshirt, but whatever. It's Bryant Stith's son, man! (Bryant Stith, FYI, is my favorite player of all time, regardless of sport, team, etc. I love Bryant Stith.) I'll hedge my bets by also mentioning Isaiah Wilkins, who could provide us with the same sort of athletic presence Akil Mitchell did --- but with a bit more offensive upside.
Question 6: Other than Brog, who will be UVA's MVP this season? Explain.
Mike: I haven’t swooned about Justin Anderson yet! He’s the answer for me. He can do it all for the team and will most likely be the one who will step in and take the vocal leadership role, even more so than he did last season.
Pierce: My first instinct was to say Gill, because he's the natural replacement to Akil's responsibilities. Then I thought Justin Anderson, who easily earned game-MVP nods many times last season with his will to win (to put it simply). The answer, though, is Perrantes. A point guard can make or break games more times than any other position - and assuming he stops doing whatever he did to earn a benching for the opener - London's going to put this team in position to win most of them
Kendall: I love both of your answers, but in a mild surprise, I'm going to go with Mike Tobey. His skillset is totally unique, and it's only if Tobey realizes a bit more of his immense potential will Virginia make that Final Four run I think we're capable of making this season.
Question 7: Call it! ACC regular season finish / ACC Tournament finish / NCAA or NIT? / NCAA seed / NCAAT finish
Mike: Not sure this team has the talent to win it all, but they definitely have the talent to earn some Final Four hype in latter part of the season. I think we will see some bumps in the road as we try to fill Joe and Akil’s shoes, but by the end of the season we will be hitting on all cylinders. I think we get a 2-3 seed in the tournament, but are the sneaky good team no one wants to play (like Michigan State last year). I’d say we have a better shot at winning the ACC Tournament than we do the regular season, but I’m not sure we repeat.
Pierce: I'll hedge my bets and go: 3rd in the ACC / lose in ACC semis due to poor officiating / NCAA 3 seed / ...and with the added benefit of not facing Michigan State, we surpass last year and make it to the Elite 8, where we lose a terrible game to Wisconsin. This is the new normal, y'all. It's gonna be pretty great.
Kendall: 3rd behind Duke and Louisville / lose in the semifinals... to Duke or Louisville / NCAA Tournament, 4-seed / lose in the Elite Eight to 2-seed Florida after upsetting 1-seed Arizona in the Sweet Sixteen.