Virginia feels like Virginia again
Tony Bennett tweaked his team's defense and rediscovered its identity
Talking to Virginia’s coaching staff over the summer, it was practically impossible to get a read on what the 2023-24 Cavaliers could be. To some extent, this is always true. Coaches are never sure of their squads in July or August, if they are ever sure of them at all, and anyway you might need to get them off the record for them to reveal their deepest, darkest suspicions about roster makeup or player progress or whether or not anybody involved thinks the team is actually going to be good. By default, you never know.
Still, Virginia, with its one returning starter and its glut of transfers and freshmen, was an especially difficult case — truly unknowable, even to itself.
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“This is like year one and two for us all over again,” Williford said then. Virginia was starting from scratch, all the way back to the earliest days of Tony Bennett’s tenure, when he had just begun to methodically make real the program in his head. No one knew what his latest team would look like in November, or December, to say nothing of February and March. Virginia was in uncharted territory. Every possibility was on the table — and not just because of the current roster, but as the logical result of drift.
Bennett has become more tactically flexible in recent seasons, more willing to adapt to the skills of his players, but the upshot has been a slight loss of identity. In 2020-21, he went to a fun, modern five-out offensive group that couldn’t defend at previously established levels (which is why he leaned in to the offense in the first place); a year later, a rebuilding team lost 14 games; last season, the cold-shooting Wahoos were merely solid defensively. At no point in the past three seasons has Virginia resembled Bennett’s very best teams; at no point have the Cavaliers defended like the 2014-2020 squads, which never ranked lower than seventh in adjusted efficiency.
So now, with all these new players, with a roster formed by transfer portal reactivity, it was fair to wonder: What would this Virginia team’s identity be? Would it even have one?
In Wednesday’s 59-47 win over Texas A&M, this team’s identity could best be described as follows: Virginia. You know: Virginia? Remember Virginia?