CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia's basketball team was a combined 45-22 the past two years. But after Feb. 1, the Cavaliers were 12-14 with a pair of early ACC tournament exits and a lopsided defeat in their first NCAA appearance in five years.
The culprit: Injuries and fatigue that frayed already thin rosters.
This season should be dramatically different. Preparing for his fifth season, coach Tony Bennett has assembled depth and talent capable of making Virginia an ACC and national contender.
"This is definitely the most depth and talent we've had since I've been here," senior forward Joe Harris said Wednesday at the team's preseason media gathering.
No question. With six of their top seven scorers back, including the top five, plus rugged South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill and redshirt Malcolm Brogdon, the Cavaliers are stocked.
And we're talking quantity and quality. Harris is the ACC's only returning first-team all-conference selection, and he and third-teamer Akil Mitchell make Virginia the only squad with two all-league players.
"We're deep everywhere," junior forward Darion Atkins said, "and it's translated to practice. Everyone knows it. It's been healthy competition. Everyone is like, 'I have something to prove. I'm here to stay. This is my spot.'"
Mitchell, Atkins, Gill and 6-foot-11 Mike Tobey headline the interior depth. Brogdon, Teven Jones and freshmen London Perrantes and Devon Hall are viable point guards. Harris, Evan Nolte and the dynamic Justin Anderson are comfortable anywhere on the wings.
Brogdon missed all of last season with a foot injury, while Atkins sat eight games with a shin ailment, Tobey five with mononucleosis. Other than a minor shoulder issue with Perrantes, the Cavaliers are healthy as they approach scrimmages against Georgetown and Marquette, and the Nov. 8 season-opener versus James Madison.
"There's going to be a war for playing time," Bennett said. "But will they put the team above themselves? … I think we've got a group that wants to be good collectively, and that's still how we have to do it. We don't have enough individual talent just to line 'em up and say, 'Hey we're going to dominate people.' We have to do it collectively. Different guys at different times."
Given the Cavaliers' experience, Bennett has more exacting in early practices — Wednesday was the team's ninth — demanding more attention to details, especially on defense. "Boot camp" was how he described the overall approach, and "crude" was his evaluation of some sessions that displeased him.
"He expects a lot out of us because he knows how talented the group is," Harris said. "If guys are turning it over or making impulsive plays or something he might consider bonehead, those are the little things that kind of get under his skin. …
"I kind of need that every once in a while. There might be some days when school was long or something like that and you're feeling a little tired, you need Coach to come at you a little bit. … That's not a bad thing at all."
Harris started all 35 games last season, averaged a team-best 16.3 points and made 42.5 percent of his 3-point attempts. But he was gassed late, shooting 24.3 percent from beyond the arc in the last six games.
The Cavaliers lost four of their final seven regular-season games and fell by 19 points to North Carolina State in the ACC tournament, relegating them to the National Invitation Tournament. Two years ago, Virginia also dropped four-of-seven to close the regular season before losing to N.C. State in the ACC tournament and by 26 points to Florida in the NCAA.
That said, Virginia was 9-7 in the ACC two seasons ago, 11-7 last. Care to guess how many times the Cavaliers have enjoyed three consecutive winning ACC records?
That would be once: Ralph Sampson's sophomore-senior years, 1981-83. So Bennett's program is poised for a notable accomplishment.
Granted, last season's conference record wasn't enough to earn Virginia a second straight NCAA tournament bid. The Cavaliers not only stumbled too often outside the league but also, through no fault of their own, faced a tame ACC regular-season schedule that included only one game each against NCAA qualifiers Miami, Duke and North Carolina State.
Schedule strength shouldn't be an issue come Selection Sunday 2014. Three of the four ACC teams Virginia faces twice — Notre Dame, Maryland and Florida State — likely will be NCAA tournament-caliber, while the non-conference tests include VCU, Davidson, Wisconsin, Tennessee and perhaps Texas A&M.
"I think at the end of the year we'll be a much better team and that will be because we have much better depth and there will be much more balance from a playing time standpoint," Harris said. "We (learned) that last year. You can do whatever during the course of the season. You can (be) fourth in the ACC, but it's all about how you finish the season and what you can do in postseason."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun