January 7, 2012; Charlottesville, VA USA; Virginia Cavaliers guard Jontel Evans (1) talks with Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett against the Miami Hurricanes in the second half at John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers won 52-51. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE

Virginia Cavaliers Basketball Season Preview

The college hoops season is right around the corner, and Busting Brackets is here to whet your basketball-starved appetite. Over the next five weeks, we are publishing season previews team by team, conference by conference, to offer a glimpse into the upcoming season. Busting Brackets is giving you the lowdown on the biggest storylines, offseason changes and x-factors for each team and each league as we roll into the 2012-13 season. Our complete season preview archive can be accessed here. Buckle up, peeps.

Virginia Cavaliers

Last Season 22-10 (9-7 ACC)
Lost to NC State in quarterfinals of ACC tournament
Lost to Florida in second round of NCAA tournament
Key Returning Players: Joe Harris, G
Jontel Evans, G
Malcolm Brogdon, G
Akil Mitchell, F
Darion Atkins, F
Paul Jesperson, G
Key Additions: Justin Anderson, F (Montrose Christian School)
Evan Nolte, F (Milton HS)
Mike Tobey, C (Blair Academy)
Teven Jones, G (Fishburne Military School)
Taylor Barnette, G (Lexington Christian Academy)
Key Losses: Mike Scott, F
Assane Sene, C
Sammy Zeglinski, G
K.T. Harrell, G (Transferred to Auburn)
James Johnson, F (Transferred to San Diego State)
Top Non-Conference Games: Nov. 9 @ George Mason
Nov. 19 vs. TBD (NIT Season Tip-Off Finals)
Nov. 20 vs. TBD (NIT Season Tip-Off Finals)
Nov. 28 @ Wisconsin
Dec. 5 vs. Tennessee
Dec. 22 vs. Old Dominion
Top Conference Games: Jan. 6 vs. North Carolina
Jan. 19 vs. Florida State
Jan. 24 @ Virginia Tech
Jan. 29 vs. NC State
Feb. 12 vs. Virginia Tech
Feb. 16 @ North Carolina
Feb. 19 @ Miami (FL)
Feb. 28 vs. Duke
Mar. 7 @ Florida State
Breakout Player: Joe Harris. Last season, Harris was one of the underrated great secondary options in the ACC. Now the junior guard will take on a much more demanding role as the No. 1 option. With Mike Scott—last year’s ACC Player of the Year runner-up—lost to graduation, Harris will be the focal point of the Cavaliers offense in 2012-13. Virginia will rely heavily on its backcourt this season to atone for the attrition that befell the frontcourt during the offseason. On top of the loss of Scott, former starting center Assane Sene, who missed the final 15 games of last season with an injury, is gone as well. Sene’s absence directly coincided [and not coincidentally, either] with Virginia’s tail-spin during conference play. With Scott and Sene out of the picture, the burden of responsibility shifts onto the backcourt—Harris in particular—to shoulder the load. Harris is a creative scorer who can stroke it from outside and muster tough points in the paint as well. The uptick in touches he’ll get this season should allow the junior guard to have a breakout season in Charlottesville.
X-Factor: Backcourt Health. Virginia enters the 2012-13 season with its No. 1 point guard on crutches and backup recovering from major foot surgery. Jontel Evans, the lone letter-winning senior on the team, had surgery earlier this month to repair a stress fracture in his right foot. His contingency plan, Malcolm Brogdon (a combo guard), is only at the infancy stages of his recovery from surgery on his left foot. Both Evans and Brodgon are questionable for the season opener, but the long-term prognosis should sound the loudest alarms for Tony Bennett and his Cavaliers. Even if Evans and Brogdon are ready in time for the team’s opener at George Mason, how healthy and able they are over the course of the season will be a major question mark. Major foot injuries, especially those that require surgery, tend to linger, and with all the cutting Evans and Brogdon will be doing on the court, it’s not a given that their feet will hold up over a grueling five-month season. The Wahoos will run almost exclusively through their backcourt this season given how thin the team is down low. While you might be inclined to earmark frontcourt contributions as the biggest x-factor for Bennett’s team this year, the reality is the short-term ceiling is very low for the UVA big men. If Evans and/or Brogdon are not ready to go right away or are not 100-percent for an extended stretch of the season, look for Bennett to turn to a bigger rotation. Talented freshmen Justin Anderson and Evan Nolte figure to see significant playing time from day one. And if Evans and/or Brogdon can’t go, the expectations for the two prized recruits will be even greater than initially forecast.
Best Case: Evans and Brogdon are eased back into the rotation (not rushed) and Virginia atones for their absence in the meantime by digging into its talented freshmen class. By the time Evans and Brogdon return to the fold—importantly, at full strength—some of the Cavaliers freshmen have already gotten their feet wet at the college level which bodes well for down the line when they may again be needed. Justin Anderson is more than just a freak athlete. He’s a star-in-the-making who explodes during his rookie campaign. With ample playing time to showcase his skills, Anderson outshines Rodney Purvis (NC State) and Rasheed Sulaimon (Duke) for ACC freshman of the year honors. Nolte, while not as flashy, is no less productive, and the big wing with the quick release has an outstanding season shooting the basketball (which is a point of emphasis for UVA with Sammy Zeglinski gone). Joe Harris has a monster season that earns him a spot on the first-team all-conference team. After handling a manageable non-conference schedule, the Cavaliers roll into conference play and beat up on the bottom-feeders in the league. Virginia also notches upset wins at home over two of the following four schools: NC State, Duke, North Carolina and Florida State. A 10-win season in-conference (bear in mind, it’s an 18-game conference season now) and strong showing in the non-conference puts UVA squarely on the bubble, a significant accomplishment given how much star-power the team lost from last year.
Worst Case: Evans and Brogdon are rushed back. Over the course of the season, it becomes clear the two were never 100-percent. The freshmen play like typical freshman, subject to youthful mistakes and growing pains. Justin Anderson disappoints in his rookie season, looking like a dazzling athlete misplaced on a basketball court. Despite the athleticism, Anderson lacks the pure, refined basketball skills that turned several high-major coaches away during his recruitment. Nolte can shoot, but that’s it. And his suspect defense binds him to the bench for most of the season. Joe Harris is not Mike Scott (who is?), and is incapable of carrying the team by himself. Harris is weighed down by lofty expectations and a newfound commitment by opposing defenses to take him out of his game. Virginia’s stellar defense from last season (UVA ranked sixth in the nation in defensive efficiency) takes a major hit in 2012-13 in light of the absence of Scott (and Sene). Whereas the Cavaliers pulled out seven wins last season in which they scored 61 or fewer points thanks entirely to their stifling D, the team is unable to win so many low-scoring games again in 2012-13. The inevitable regression to the norm on defense corresponds to a similar regression in the standings. UVA has a decent showing in the non-conference, but is buried in a much-improved ACC. A shortage of signature wins turns a retooling season into a throwaway season in Charlottesville.
Projected Finish: Regular Season: 17-14 (8-10 ACC), 7th place ACC
Lose in quarterfinals of ACC tournament
NIT or CBI appearance

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