November 13, 2014

(AP) Even though they lost both their defensive anchor and perhaps their best all-around player, Tony Bennett and Virginia think they can be better than they were last season.

The ninth-ranked Cavaliers start moving on without Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell on Friday night in a rare visit to Harrisonburg to take on in-state rival James Madison.

Virginia is coming off its best season in decades, and despite two huge losses in Harris and Mitchell, there's still belief that Bennett's team can improve.

Harris (12.0 points per game) was the scoring threat that made the offense work, and Mitchell (6.8 ppg, 7.0 rebounds per game) was the emotional and defensive leader who made up for others' mistakes. There are numerous players ready to take on those roles, and Bennett says how it all plays out will determine the Cavaliers' fortunes.

Perhaps the key to it all is guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led Virginia last year with a 12.7 scoring average and will team with returning point guard London Perrantes to provide an elite backcourt tandem.

Perrantes, however, won't be suited up for this one. The sophomore and junior forward Evan Nolte are suspended for the opener after violating team rules over the summer.

Despite all the success last season - a 30-7 record, their first outright regular-season ACC title in 33 years and first conference tourney win in 38 - the top-seeded Cavaliers couldn't make it past the NCAA regional semifinals, where they were bounced by No. 4 seed Michigan State.

Maintaining the hunger that brought them to new heights last season will be critical, Brogdon said.

''I think we make ourselves aware that we have a target on our back this season and we need to go at people the way they are going to go at us,'' the redshirt junior said this week. ''As long as we can ignore the distractions and expectations, I think we're going to have a very successful season.''

Even without Mitchell, Bennett has 6-foot-11 Mike Tobey and forwards Anthony Gill and Darion Atkins to try to provide the frontcourt points and rebounds that Mitchell brought, and guard Justin Anderson to lead the way defensively and with spotty offensive firepower that Bennett hopes will be more consistent.

Guard Devon Hall redshirted last season, and the four freshmen that could be in the rotation include guards B.J. Stith and Marial Shayok, 6-7 forward Isaiah Wilkins and 6-11 center Jack Salt.

Bennett said last season was fun, but not something the Cavaliers can rely on repeating.

''I think it would be a big mistake to try to compare us to last year's team,'' Bennett said. ''I think the key really is, and I told them this, that to realize as a group we are a different team.''

James Madison is hoping its results are different from last year, when it went 11-20 and finished seventh in the Colonial Athletic Conference.

The Dukes are picked to finish fifth this season, but they're not going to be close to full strength against the Cavaliers. Coach Matt Brady suspended guard Andre Nation, the team's leading scorer and rebounder last season, for five games, and forward Tom Vodanovich for two for violating team rules.

Charles Cooke and Taylor Bessick transferred, leaving Ron Curry as the only returning starter until Nation's suspension ends.

James Madison was 343rd out of 345 Division I teams last season in assists per game (8.8) and 3-point percentage (27.3).

Virginia opened last season with a 61-41 win over the Dukes, whom they outrebounded 45-27. This is just the Cavaliers' third trip to Harrisonburg to face James Madison and first since 1982.

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