The Virginia men’s basketball team opened practice last week as it gets set to start its 10th season under head coach Tony Bennett.
The Cavaliers were the No. 1 team in the nation down the stretch before an historic loss to No. 16 seed UMBC in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
They enter this season with several new players, and what they hope is a clean slate. The Daily Progress chatted with associate head coach Jason Williford about that topic, the new college basketball rules, where several players stand on the roster, and much more.
Daily Progress: Are there people in practice that are standing out — guys that the fans might not necessarily expect?
Williford: “They’re all working really hard. It’s still early, there’s some sloppiness with turnovers offensively that you’ve got to correct. And then defensively, the urgency that we’ve got to play with — and I’m talking mostly about the new guys when it comes to that. Kihei [Clark] has been, I shouldn’t say a surprise, he’s been somewhat what was expected of him. Quick, can touch the paint, a havoc, he can harass you on defense. He’s been a nightmare sometimes for Ty [Jerome] and Kyle [Guy]. Just handling the ball against that type of pressure.
“Kody [Stattmann] has been a surprise in that he’s got really good basketball feel offensively, shoots it really well with deep range. But he is a work-in-progress defensively. Somewhat expected with those first-year guys, and then the other guys are slowly coming. Jay [Huff] is rounding into form, obviously having missed some time with the shoulder. So he’s coming back. Mamadi [Diakite] has been good, just needs to be more consistent. Marco [Anthony] has been solid. I think that’s about it with those guys.”
DP: You have Braxton Key in there practicing, and you’re waiting out to see if he’ll be eligible. How do you as a coaching staff handle the limbo of uncertainty in that situation?
Williford: “That was not expected, the whole waiver thing. So we kind of expected him to come in to come in and learn our system. We were anticipating him redshirting. He’s been good; he’s been solid.
“But there’s some things he has to learn, from our terminology to our system defensively. And obviously learn our offense and what we’re doing on that side of the ball. We’ll just wait and see. He obviously could help. But I’m under the notion of just be patient and wait and if he’s eligible, that’s an early Christmas present.”
DP: Hopefully you’d find out before Christmas, though?
Williford: “Hopefully that’s the case. Hopefully we hear by the end of the month.”
DP: Is that based off of what typically happens, or have you been told that’s when you’ll know?
Williford: “I’m going off of what typically happens. I think a lot of those cases go right up to the week before the first game. I’m basing it off of that solely.”
DP: What have you seen from Jack Salt? He clearly got stronger in the offseason. What role could he play on the offense and defense? Could he score more?
Williford: “I think Jack — obviously he’s changed his body tremendously — and that’s a credit to his work ethic. I think Jack is who Jack is going to be.
“Yes, he can give us the occasional low post presence with maybe a jump hook or a dunk down finish. I think he’s improved. He’s really worked hard in that area, so I anticipate some improvement on that end. But Jack’s going to be who he is — a solid defender. He’s going to rebound the heck out of the ball. He’s going to screen like crazy. Going to be a rim protector. I think he has fully embraced that role. And we need that. We need that presence on this team.”
DP: Isaiah Wilkins got in his first NBA preseason game. What’s that like to see for a coach?
Williford: “I love it for not just Isaiah, but we love it for all our guys that are in the league and it’s the start of the year for those guys. Extremely excited for them. But we’re excited for the guys that have already gone across the water, London [Perrantes] and Mike Tobey and those guys that are playing overseas. I think it’s huge for the program that those guys continue to have that success, be it overseas or NBA. But quite honestly, I am not focused on NBA preseason basketball right now.”
DP: How does it impact your program and college basketball with the presence of agents being allowed more into the sport in a formal setting?
Williford: “It’s the new landscape of basketball. We’re going to have to make the adjustment. But I think Tony has done a good job. The guys could always previously talk to agents. In the past, you could talk to agents, you just weren’t allowed to sign. I don’t think that will change, obviously if a kid is good enough, the NBA deems him worthy of first-, second-round status and guys want to now sign, I don’t think we’ll hold them up. We can’t.
“But I think what we’ll do is ask that everything go through the family and kind of let the kids play the season out, and when the time is right, I think the time those guys can make those decisions as a family and sign and elect to narrow their choices down at the appropriate time and make that decision. I don’t know how much that affects our guys, but like I said, they were always able to talk to agents in the past, so it’s just a matter of making it official now.”
DP: There are more sanctioned recruiting events, and some more recruiting restrictions? How does that impact you as a recruiter?
Williford: “The recruiting calendar has changed quite a bit. … Hell, I’ve been coaching 19 years and the recruiting calendar has often changed. It used to be where you were out the entire month of July, coaches kind of wanted some time to be with their current roster when they were in summer school and be with those guys. So that changed. This is just another change, we’ll adjust. I’m sure I’m happy about the June recruiting that cuts into my family vacation, we like to go to the Caribbean in June. So I’m going to have to talk to Tony about that. No, I’m just kidding (laughs).
“The calendar, it is what it is. We’ll make the adjustment. Still trying to figure out how July looks from an AAU standpoint and what events there are going to be in July. We’ll just have to make the appropriate adjustments. But April is still there for AAU. They added — I’m trying remember exactly what was added in June. I think we can go to camps. Obviously NBA [Top 100] camp, I think there’s a three-day window for NBA camp, which will be good, because when it’s here, we can’t see the kids. It’s like Fort Knox over here in JPJ. At least now we can poke our head in and sleep in my own bed. I can watch some really good talent. That’s a plus.”
DP: You mentioned that Kody has a long way to go defensively. And I know you guys aren’t shy about redshirting. Is there anyone that’s a candidate to redshirt?
Williford: “No, I mean, we may discuss that at the appropriate time. It’s still early. Obviously, if there was an injury, we’d be redshirting a guy. But in regards to Kihei and Kody, no we’ve just got to see were they are, and get through a couple scrimmages, and figure it all out then. It’s all hands on deck right now.”
DP: Is Jay Huff going to be the player this year that everyone wants and expects him to be?
Williford: “We hope so. Obviously, we know what we’re getting with Ty and Kyle and Jack and De’Andre [Hunter], and we need Mamadi to step up. We need Jay to step up. Marco, Frankie [Badocchi], all those guys have to show that they’ve improved.
“But we hope that’s the case for Jay. He’s worked his butt off to get that shoulder rehabbed, and get himself back in good playing shape. He’s made strides, and he has to continue to make strides. I know he’s a fan-favorite, we all love him, but he’s going to have to bring it defensively, and you know Tony is all about his defense. So he’s going to have to rim protect, block shots, rebound and give us what he does best offensively in stretching the floor and being able to finish.”
DP: I assume De’Andre is totally healthy at this point?
DP: Is there anyone else dealing with injuries?
Williford: “No, other than [Francisco] Caffaro. … He has a knee issue. I know he’s been out and he’s slowly making his way back.
DP: Will he be able to play this season?
Williford: “I don’t know. Obviously those are decisions we’ll make when the time is right. But he’s making his way back.”
DP: How will you look at the UMBC loss in the context of this season? How does it impact this team?
Williford: “It can’t be the elephant in the room. And we’ve talked about it collectively as a group. The staff has talked about how we need to learn from it, and do things differently when things aren’t going our way, when we’re struggling in a certain area. And we’ve addressed those areas. And then, we’ve talked to the guys.
“It’s our history. It’s part of our process. We’ll take from that loss what we can learn from and move forward. But, at this point, last year is last year. And we know we’re going to have to answer those questions if we’re fortunate to get back to the NCAA Tournament. That’s always going to be thrown up in our face. The guys are going to have to embrace it (laughs) when they’re on the road and fans are taunting them and giving it to them. So, they understand that.
“We’ve got to have thick skin. We’ve got to move beyond the UMBC game. It is 2018-19, so it is a different year; it’s a different team. But we are not running from our past and what happened. We’re moving forward and looking to grow form it.”
DP: Both Trevon Gross Jr. and Justice Bartley transferred to Division-I programs and will have a chance to play, it seems. How much does the current coaching staff help out in that process?
Williford: “Happy for those guys. Those are two great dudes. … By no means did we want to see them go. But we understood. And yes, if schools call, we tell them about the guys, and who they were and what they were getting. And absolutely Coach was on board with helping those guys. I hope they both get an opportunity to play more and show what they can do. But more importantly, those guys got degrees from UVa, and they’re always going to be part of the family. And they’re great kids.”