Can Virginia extend regular-season success into the postseason?
- Virginia has enjoyed plenty of regular-season success under coach Tony Bennett in recent years, but when will that success translate into a deep run in March?
The college basketball off-season is long and largely lacking in major news developments. Programs are still finalizing their 2017 recruiting classes and sorting out which of their players will return for another season or jump to the professional ranks. We’ve got a long way to go until Midnight Madness. To help pass the time, SI.com is asking and answering three key questions about each of the teams in our Way-Too-Early Top 25. Here’s No. 18, Virginia.
1. How does Virginia build a team with some tourney staying power?
Tony Bennett's team has been one of the more disappointing when it comes to NCAA tournament play the past few springs. Over the previous four seasons, Virginia has averaged 28 wins, but it has only made it to the Elite Eight once. While that record is by no means shabby—making the NCAAs four straight years is nothing to discount—the Hoos have had trouble extending their remarkable success in the ACC into the postseason in recent years. This March, as Ken Pomeroy's No. 10 team entering March Madness, they got stomped by Florida, 65-39, in the round of 32. For a No. 5 seed (Virginia) against a No. 4 (Florida), that's not exactly a score anyone would predict, and Virginia needs to prove it's more than just a fun regular-season team bound to disappoint come tourney time. There's no simple solution to these early exits. If there were, Bennett would have figured it out by now.
2. Is Virginia in trouble after announcing a wave of transfers in late March?
The Hoos looked to bring back most of their 2016-17 roster—until the end of March, when word got out that along with forward Austin Nichols’s departure to the NBA draft, Virginia also would lose guards Darius Thompson and Marial Shayok and forward Jarred Reuter to transfer. While Nichols accounted for just 16 minutes of in-game action last season, the news of the three transfers will hit Virginia hard. Shayok and Johnson both averaged more than 20 minutes per game, Reuter just more than 10, and Shayok was the Hoos' second-leading scorer.
Now, Virginia brings back only six players who saw significant time on the court last year, and it has open scholarships to fill at a late date. Whether it fills all four is inconsequential—three would be fine—but it's more a question of who the team can snag, be it a transfer, graduate transfer or undecided high school senior. This will be a much younger and less experienced roster than Bennett must have imagined a month ago, and while there's still plenty of talent to work with, the transfers complicate matters going into the fall.
3. What impact will Nigel Johnson have?
Here's a piece of good news for Virginia fans: Johnson, a Rutgers graduate transfer, committed to Virginia on April 10, snagging one of those open scholarships. Johnson, a point guard, will fill a gaping hole in the Hoos' backcourt, which lost Shayok and Thompson to transfer and leading scorer London Perrantes to graduation.
Johnson has had a well-traveled career, starting off at Kansas State before transferring to Rutgers and now Virginia. Last year for the Scarlet Knights, he averaged 11.3 points and 2.0 assists, starting 13 games and coming up big in the Big Ten tournament. As for his impact at Virginia, it'll be necessary, if not easy for him to grasp a quick foothold. Bennett's defense-first system is one of the tougher to grasp in college hoops, and with just one year left to play, Johnson has a lot to learn fast.