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What Does Defending Champion Virginia Have in Store for an Encore?

The Cavaliers lost their top three scorers from last season. But as long as Tony Bennett is at the helm, they’ll remain a contender.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When the final horn sounded and the confetti fell from high atop U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis last April, Virginia fans—between moments of euphoria and celebration—breathed a sigh of relief. For most of the 2010s, the Hoos were among the most dominant teams in college basketball, frequently racking up 30-plus-win seasons and top seeds in the NCAA tournament, but after beating Texas Tech, they finally had a national championship to show for it.

Even before their “One Shining Moment,” the Cavaliers boasted a résumé that was nearly unparalleled among the elite programs in college basketball. Since the 2013-14 season, Virginia played at a slower pace than almost every other team on record. That season—its fastest relative to the rest of the sport in that span—it won 30 games and the ACC regular-season and postseason championships, then reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1995. From there, the Cavaliers only got better—and slower.

They’ve won more games than all but three teams—Gonzaga, Villanova, and Kentucky—in the past six seasons, and played at a slower pace than every other team in Division I for the past three. They’ve at least tied for the ACC regular-season championship four times in that span, and despite their frequent stumbles in March, are tied with Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan, and Kansas for the sixth most NCAA tournament wins.

Virginia became the seventh team in this decade to win a title, joining a collection of the usual suspects. Duke, Villanova, and Connecticut each won twice; Kentucky and North Carolina—who rank first and third, respectively, among the winningest programs in NCAA history—each won once. And Louisville, which traded the Big East for the ACC in 2014, claimed one title, as well.

A championship isn’t just the desired endgame for a season; it’s confirmation of a program’s place in the sport. For years, people criticized head coach Tony Bennett’s system, claiming that Virginia’s slow play was boring, conducive to success in the regular season but a detriment in postseason knockout tournaments. Playing slowly limits possessions, so to beat Virginia, opponents have to do more than they’re used to with fewer opportunities. Most of the time, it works to the Hoos’ advantage, allowing them to grind out wins against more talented opponents. But the trade-off is that it becomes difficult to pull away from teams. And until last season, that was a defining characteristic in each of Virginia’s biggest losses.

In 2014, the no. 1 seeded Hoos lost to no. 4 Michigan State in the Sweet 16. They lost again as a no. 2 seed the next year, this time to the seventh-seeded Spartans a round earlier. In 2016, Virginia finally reached the Elite Eight—its first since 1995—but lost to no. 10 seed Syracuse in a game the Hoos led by 15 with under 10 minutes to play. And in 2018, they made history, becoming the first no. 1 seed to fall in the opening round, losing by 20 to UMBC. The system that made them a contender for most of the 2010s turned them into a punch line.

Even last season, as the Hoos attempted to exorcise their demons, the threat of collapse still loomed. Nothing about Virginia’s championship run was comfortable. The Cavaliers struggled early against Gardner-Webb before pulling away. They were tied late in the second half against Oregon in the Sweet 16, and needed miracles to best Purdue and Auburn to reach the title game, where they needed overtime for the second time in three contests to claim victory.

Bennett’s vaunted playing style served as a way to level the playing field for the Hoos in a conference with Duke and North Carolina, two of the most dominant and talented teams in college basketball history. It became a formula for greatness once better players began to matriculate in Charlottesville. The Mustapha Farrakhans gave way to Joe Harrises gave way to De’Andre Hunters. Each 30-win season and countless suffocation of a better foe raised Virginia’s profile until its recruiting classes began to rival its results.

This year’s incoming class ranks 23rd nationally by 247Sports—Bennett’s best since 2016, when Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De’Andre Hunter joined the Hoos. That trio made up the spine that carried Virginia to a championship, and all were selected in June’s NBA draft. Hunter, taken fourth by the Atlanta Hawks, became Virginia’s highest pick since Ralph Sampson went first in 1983, and the first lottery pick in school history.

Winning a national title is difficult, and it’s even harder to do it twice. Still, thanks to Bennett’s vaunted scheme, Virginia’s place among college basketball’s elite seems secure. The Hoos’ championship cemented their blue blood status. Now, Virginia has to build on it.

Despite the losses of Guy, Jerome, and Hunter, the Hoos should be well equipped to compete for an ACC title this season, and by extension, the national championship. Four of this decade’s national champions have come from the ACC, and a fifth, Louisville, now calls the conference home (the Cardinals won in 2013 in their final season as a Big East member). Each of those other squads—Louisville, Duke, and North Carolina—enters this season in the AP’s preseason top 10 and has at least one player with the potential to finish the year as an All-American. Virginia has more than enough talent to hang tough, though. Senior Mamadi Diakite, who hit the buzzer-beater to force overtime against Purdue in the Elite Eight, and sophomore Kihei Clark, who threw the pass that made the shot possible, both return, as do junior Jay Huff and senior Braxton Key. All four are likely starters, and Diakite and Clark are the most likely options to replace the scoring lost from last season’s team.

Clark started 20 games for the Hoos in his freshman season, including every contest from late February through the championship game. He wasn’t often called upon as a scoring threat in the same way Diakite (10.5 points per game on 60 percent shooting during the NCAA tournament) was, but his consistent play on both ends of the floor contributed to how heavily he featured in Bennett’s lineups. Clark averaged 33 minutes per game in the Big Dance, and it’s likely that will continue this fall.

His new backcourt partner, Casey Morsell, is 247Sports’ no. 56 player in the incoming class, and Virginia’s ninth-highest-rated recruit since the service began keeping records. Bennett has hailed Morsell for his potential on both sides of the ball, and he should be the Hoos’ primary ball handler when Clark takes the pine. How quickly he can adapt to the speed of ACC play will be a factor in how well Virginia can defend its title, but Morsell seems confident in his growth since reaching campus.

“I remember when I first got here, it felt like the game was just so fast. Especially with our sides’ offense and getting run into a bunch of screens with Francisco Caffaro, Jay Huff, and Mamadi Diakite knocking me out every day,” Morsell told 247Sports. “Mamadi and I went to the practice gym and he literally taught me the packline and how to be effective in the packline.”

Clark’s presence in the backcourt should be a stabilizing presence, but Diakite’s play will determine the Hoos’ ceiling. At 6-foot-9 and 224 pounds, he’s slightly undersized to play center, where he spent most of his minutes during Virginia’s championship run, but his nose for the boards and interior presence more than make up for his stature. During the tournament, Diakite pulled down 8.2 rebounds and blocked 2.7 shots per game, and committed only 1.7 fouls per game. Virginia has a noticeable talent deficit compared with last season’s squad, both in star power and in depth, and keeping key contributors like Diakite on the floor is vital to its success.

Last season was the sixth consecutive that saw the Hoos ranked among the top seven most efficient defensive squads in the nation. Some of that has to do with their system limiting opponent’s possessions, but even more is a factor of what Virginia does during those possessions. Bennett’s defense is performance art, with each piece working in perfect unison. Syracuse, the Hoos’ opponent in their season opener, similarly does more with less thanks to a 2-3 zone that dares opponents to hit 3s while congesting passing lanes and cutting out drives to the rim. Virginia’s defense sacrifices nothing. The packline schematic is a man-to-man variation, passed down to Bennett by his father, Dick, who once led the Wisconsin Badgers to the Final Four. In practice, it allows the Cavaliers to deny teams on the fast break, stop them on the drive, and eat on the defensive glass. The only way the break through is to hope for an off night, or come firing in with a player as efficient as Zion Williamson. And even then, it might not be enough.

Virginia had never experienced as much success as it did last season, and it’s never turned over as many key pieces from its roster as it will this fall. How the Hoos respond to replacing their three best players will determine their chances of defending their title. No team since Florida in 2006 and 2007 has won consecutive championships. With Clark and Diakite, and Bennett’s tried-and-tested system, the Cavaliers will try to become the first.