CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Members of the Virginia men’s basketball program took to the podium Tuesday at ACC Men’s Basketball Media Day to discuss last season’s national championship run and this upcoming season.
The Cavaliers brought coach Tony Bennett and seniors Braxton Key and Mamadi Diakite to Charlotte for the event. The trio spoke to a large audience in a conference room before moving to smaller press conferences within the same room.
Embracing the title
The Cavaliers didn’t shy away from their loss to UMBC in 2018, and they won’t shy away from winning the national championship in 2019.
“I’m very thankful for what transpired,” Bennett said. “I think it’s been a process, and just like after the 2018 season, it was an amazing year and obviously a hardening from a basketball standpoint, but we grew from it. We didn’t hide from it. We addressed it. But we didn’t obsess about it, and I think the same holds true with this last year.”
Diakite mentioned continuing to hold the UMBC loss under his skin. He says he’ll use that loss for motivation for the rest of his basketball career.
This season’s challenges
By now, everyone knows that UVa lost guards Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter to the NBA. The team also lost center Jack Salt to graduation, which Bennett made sure to point out during Tuesday’s press conference.
“There will be some growing pains,” Bennett said. “I know that. We’ve already experienced that in practice, and I’ve been on these guys pretty hard and pushing them.”
Diakite mentioned freshman guard Casey Morsell as a player standing out through early practices. Morsell reminds him of former Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon for his physical nature and defensive prowess.
Diakite said Morsell is the only player who can stay with the quickness of Kihei Clark.
Both Diakite and Bennett also mentioned redshirt freshman center Francisco Caffaro as a player who could fit into Salt’s role, given his physicality.
“He’s gonna crack some bones this year,” Diakite said.
He said Caffaro sets hard screens similarly to Salt.
“He loves contact,” Bennett said. “I love that. Just like Jack, he loves it. And every now and then you’ll see a guy get their spine realigned like Jack used to, I just smile. He’s got people again looking around and their head’s on a swivel.”
In addition to Morsell and Caffaro, Diakite mentioned freshman forward Justin McKoy as a standout underclassman. Diakite compared McKoy to Isaiah Wilkins, who won ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2017-18.
Diakite said he received quality feedback from NBA general managers and scouts about his professional aspirations. He wants to work on his jump shot and overall consistency this year to be a more complete player.
While Diakite waited until the last possible hour to officially announce that he withdrew his name from NBA Draft consideration, Bennett knew Diakite was coming back.
He said he would’ve supported Diakite had he decided to turn pro, but both parties felt Diakite could use another season to develop given the feedback he received from NBA parties.
Salt, the lone senior on last year’s team, was the mastermind behind the team’s national championship rings.
“If it was me doing it, it would’ve been a lot more bling, a lot more diamonds, gold and what not,” Key said. “But with Jack, it’s black and just firm and strong. It resembles him a lot.”
Neither Bennett nor Key has worn the ring since the national championship banner raising celebration.
“Oh all the time,” Bennett joked when asked when he wears the ring. “I sleep in it. I go to church in it ... I don’t think that’s a ring that you wear around a lot.”
The Cavaliers open the season on the road at Syracuse in early November. It’s not only UVa’s first game of the year, it’s also the team’s first of 20 ACC games in 2019-20.
“Opening up at the Carrier Dome, it’s one of my favorite places to play,” Key said. “It’s massive. Last year we played there, and we got really hot, so hopefully we can keep that streak, and it’ll be a great matchup Nov. 6.”
UVa won 79-53 in Syracuse last season, outscoring the Orange 47-19 after trailing by two points at halftime.