CHARLOTTE — When the ACC’s Operation Basketball was held last year, Virginia could not hide from the fact that it was returning to the site of one of greatest disappointments.
Coach Tony Bennett and players Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key represented UVa at the same function Tuesday, and it was a totally different story.
On Tuesday, Bennett made mention of UVa’s 2018 loss to UMBC, when the teams were seeded Nos. 1 and 16, respectively, in the first round of the 2018 NCAA East Regional.
“After the 2018 season, it was a hard ending from a basketball standpoint,” Bennett said. “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 thing holds true for last year.”
After falling to Florida State in the semifinal round of the 2018 ACC Tournament, the Cavaliers finished the season with six straight victories to claim the school’s first men’s basketball NCAA championship.
‘We’re very thankful for it; we’ll grow from it, we celebrated it and have enjoyed it,” Bennett said. “We won’t obsess over it, nor will we sweep it under the rug. You’re thankful for what both extremes teach you.”
The team that finished 35-3 is in a rebuilding mode after losing three underclassmen to the NBA Draft — first-round picks De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome, as well as second-round pick Kyle Guy, who was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
“There’s a lot of newness to this team,” said Bennett, whose 14-man roster has six newcomers, including Sam Hauser, who will sit out the 2019-20 season as a transfer from Marquette.
Diakite, a fifth-year forward, and sophomore guard Kihei Clark are the only returning starters, although senior wing Braxton Key and 7-foot-1 redshirt junior Jay Huff logged 753 and 318 minutes, respectively.
Key, a product of Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, spent two years at the University of Alabama before transferring to UVa, where he would have been required to sit out the season pending a waiver request.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to play last year,” said Key, whose home is in Charlotte. “I remember coach [Bennett] calling me right after class and I got the news that I was eligible. It was an up-and-down season, of course, playing some games and some games not.”
Bennett quickly interjected, “I’m really glad he got that waiver, too.”
“He was significant in that championship game,” said Bennett, of the Cavaliers’ 85-77 overtime victory against Texas Tech. “When [Key] said that, that made it real, that you didn’t know at this time if he was going to be able to play, so he was a huge part of it.”
Last year, the Cavaliers began the season with nonconference games against mid-major opponents Towson, George Washington and Coppin State. This year, Virginia begins with a Nov. 6 date at Syracuse, as the ACC goes to 20 regular-season games.
At that point, the Cavs’ football team still will have three regular-season football games left to be played.
“I remember when it was 16 [regular-season] games and some of the coaches probably remember when it was 14,” Bennett said. “When I got here, it was 16 [ACC games] and then it went to 18 and now we’re at 20.”
Bennett noted that Virginia also will play in a four-team tournament that includes Massachusetts, Arizona State and St. John’s in Uncasville, Connecticut, over the weekend of Nov. 23-24. Then, it’s on to Indiana for a Dec. 4 meeting with Purdue in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
“Every game is such a test,” Bennett said of the early schedule. “We have a lot of new guys and we’ll really have to rely on the older players. To start [at Syracuse] is different sort of game with that zone and that venue.”
“It’s a conference game, and to the best of your abilities, you want to get off to a good start.”
It would have been a lot easier if Hunter, Jerome and Guy had elected to complete their eligibility.
“I think we’ve been successful at Virginia because guys have grown and they’ve gotten into their upper-classman years,” Bennett said. “There is a lot being lost. You can’t deny how good Dre and Ty and Kyle were, and [7-footer] Jack Salt. He was significant.
“The beauty of college basketball is, you can be good with inexperienced guys and enough experience and that’s the challenge before us. There will be some growing pains. I know that.
“We’ve already experienced it in practice.”