Odds to win Title: +1800
2017-18 Record: 31-3 (17-1 ACC)
NCAA Tournament: Lost to UMBC in first-round
Virginia was one of the most colossal disappointments of all-time in the 2018 NCAA tournament, becoming the first No. 1 seed in tournament history to fall to a lowly 16 seed. That black mark entirely ruined its otherwise amazing season, and it will again be one of the most feared defensive teams in the NCAA. Whether it can translate that model to better tournament success remains a looming question that may haunt this team the entire season, though.
Ignoring the offensive improvements it made in the offseason would be borderline asinine, though. Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De’Andre Hunter all are sensational scorers and it will be enough to keep Virginia among the contending teams in the NCAA. Hunter is a 6’7” wing player who is considered a real NBA prospect, perhaps even more so than former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, who is playing well for the Milwaukee Bucks now.
Hunter won the Sixth Man of the Year award last season in the ACC, and he is as great a defender as he is a scorer, in the typical mold of a Tony Bennett player. He missed the NCAA tournament with a broken wrist, and that undoubtedly was a major factor in the team losing to UMBC, much to everyone’s surprise.
Senior center Jack Salt redshirted as a true freshman years ago, and he is vastly improved since that time. Isaiah Wilkins was lost to graduation, and UVA will need a new defensive “captain” so to speak following his departure. He was vocal and often responsible for calling out defensive switches, but Salt should be able to assume many of those responsibilities.
Akin Mitchell, Darion Atkins, Anthony Gill, and Wilkins are all forces defensively–and, though Salt is somewhat limited offensively, his rim protection will be vital in Virginia again pounding opponents on the defensive end of the court.
Ramadi Diakite and Jay Huff both could become contributors this year, too. Diakite showed great signs in the latter end of last season, and Huff is coming off a surgery but has some offensive skills that are unique to the 4-spot for Virginia. He will create mismatches with his shooting ability and he can pass well enough to get out of trouble from double teams.
Finally, adding Italian forward Francesco Badocchi will only further add to Virginia’s deep frontcourt, which will be among the best in college basketball this season.
The loss of Devon Hall will hurt the guard rotation, but Virginia is optimistic that Hunter, Guy, and Jerome can help replace the loss of Hall, who often carried the team when it hit is offensive doldrums last year. Guy and Jerome are both superb outside shooters, and both are not afraid to take it out to NBA range for the same three points…That does more than impress the eyes, it will help create vital spacing for the Cavaliers, which should open up both passing and driving lanes for the wings.
Overall, this is a team that will have the “16 over 1” hanging over its head for the entire year, but Virginia will try to ignore that as best it can. Bennett has had to deal with tournament failure before, but perhaps just not on a “historically futile” level like a year ago.
Virginia’s backcourt will improve its offense from last season, and it certainly has the depth required to go deep in March. Many still question the “Defense first approach,” but we are reminded of the dictum “Offense wins games, defense wins championships.” Perhaps Bennett and company can prove that true this year, rather than suffer the disaster it did last March.