Virginia Beat: European Hoops Adventures

The football season opener is less than two weeks away, and teams are square in the middle of intense preparations for the next three or four months.  So it’s the perfect time to talk about … basketball.

The UVA cagers returned last week from their trip to Europe, where they visited the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, and played five exhibition games against European squads of various levels and abilities.  It’s not easy to glean any meaningful info about how good the UVA team is, based on the results of the games in Europe.  In fact, it’s downright impossible.  There’s little way of comparing the level of competition to what they’ll face in the regular season.  If they win, maybe it’s because the opponents didn’t use their best players — it’s only an exhibition, after all.  If they lose, maybe it’s because they were playing professionals who’re ten years older than they are.  So we’re not going to bother.

Instead, it’s probably more useful to use this to learn about the composition of the team.  Injuries and attrition slowly eroded the makeup of the team last year, until the version that got blown out in the first round of the NCAA tournament (yes, first — there’s no good reason to humor the NCAA and their absurd, contorted idea of what they think the “first” round is) bore little resemblance to the team that upset Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.  It then graduated some important seniors, including the near-legendary Mike Scott, and added five scholarship freshmen to the roster.  So the European trip provides a little window into what to expect when November arrives and the games count.

Hoo fans will like what they see.  One of the major worries for this season was: what would happen on the interior?  UVA has a lot of potential for perimeter scoring, but without Mike Scott and Assane Sene, who’s going to man the frontcourt?  Coach Tony Bennett tinkered with the starting lineups some, but one thing became clear: freshman center Mike Tobey has a lot to offer.  Tobey is just 17 and is expected to bring a ton of potential, but is obviously raw.  But he was third on the team in scoring over the five-game trip.  Tobey is the only true center on the roster, so a major hole will be filled if he can be a contributor.  Another pleasant surprise: Second on the team in scoring was Akil Mitchell.  Always one of the most athletic players on the team, so far that has translated only to defense and rebounding.  But if he adds a scoring element to his game, it would add an exciting new dimension to the Hoos’ offense, and make Mitchell a good heir apparent to Mike Scott.

UVA also got solid contributions from freshmen Evan Nolte and Justin Anderson, and sophomore Paul Jesperson, giving hope that these three can also step up and play a big role.  And of course, old standbys Joe Harris and Jontel Evans did exactly what you expect them to, and will be the foundation of the team this year.

What UVA didn’t find was a solid, dependable backup to Evans at the point.  UVA recruited its point guard of the future in Devon Hall, but Hall won’t arrive until 2013.  Between now and then, the senior Evans will man the point, but he can’t do it for 40 minutes a game.  UVA will need at least one of two freshmen, Taylor Barnette or Teven Jones, to step up and prove they can handle the offense for 10 minutes or so per game.  Malcolm Brogdon is still recuperating from his foot injury, and was held out of the games on the trip, so it’s also still not clear whether he’ll be needed to back up the point or can focus on playing the two — or how big a contribution he’ll make in this, his sophomore year.

The UVA basketball team is still in building mode under Tony Bennett, who is slowly seeing the players he recruited move into the lineup.  A tourney berth last season was a pleasant surprise, but UVA is not widely expected to repeat that feat until the talent and system become further entrenched.  But they’re on the cusp this year, and the key may just be the frontcourt.  If Tobey and Mitchell can carry their success from the Europe trip into February and the ACC season, UVA could indeed be a force to be reckoned with once again.

UVA’s key to September is to come out of the first four games of the season with at least a .500 record.  If they can do that, it means they won a game that will be considered at least a mild upset – either at home against Penn State or on the road against Georgia Tech (picked two spots ahead of UVA in the ACC’s media poll) or at TCU (ranked #20 in the preseason AP poll.)  That would set up the Hoos very favorably for a second consecutive bowl invite, and in a season where the defense is rebuilding, that would be a big step in recalibrating the way UVA is viewed on the national scene.

Brendan’s bio:  I’m just this guy … this ordinary Virginia graduate and fan who woke up one day realizing his opinions on everything UVA could no longer be contained in one space.  Thus was born From Old Virginia, a labor of love where you can find obsessive opinionating on Virginia football, basketball, lacrosse, baseball, and whatever else when the mood strikes.  And if that’s still not enough for you, go to the Twitster and follow @MaizeNBlueWahoo for the dumb stuff that pops into my head when I’m watching the Hoos.

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