How does Austin Nichols dismissal impact #8 UVA? Bigly

virginia basketballAustin Nichols played one game at UVA, after sitting out a transfer year, and missing the season opener to suspension.

In a foul-trouble-ridden 16 minutes, Nichols, dismissed from the team late Friday for an undisclosed violation of team rules, scored a team-high 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting in a 72-32 Virginia win over St. Francis Brooklyn.

The former Top 25 national recruit, who was a first-team all-American Athletic Conference player at Memphis before transferring, was expected to anchor the post for the Cavs, basically filling the void left by departing three-year starter Anthony Gill.

Whatever Nichols did to earn the boot out the door, he’s gone, and the question now is, how does coach Tony Bennett account for the expected production?

Bennett has four bigs on the current roster – junior Isaiah Wilkins, redshirt sophomore Jack Salt, sophomore Jared Reuter, and redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite.

A fifth post player, four-star recruit Jay Huff, was projected as a redshirt this season, and could be called into action as needed.

But let’s stick for now with the guys who were projected as contributors. Nichols scored 13.3 points per game and hauled in 6.1 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Memphis in 2014-2015, and Gill scored 13.8 points a game and added 6.1 rebounds per game as a senior last season.

At first glance, no one among the five guys – including Huff – just steps in and does what Gill did or Nichols could do.

The player with the most upside is Diakite, now listed at 6’9”, 214, about 25 pounds up from when he first walked on Grounds for his redshirt season last fall.

Diakite seems to bring boundless energy and athleticism to the post, though he lacks obvious polish offensively, averaging 12 points per game at Blue Ridge School in his junior season in 2014-2015 before graduating early and enrolling at UVA.

Wilkins (6’7”, 225) has been a significant contributor since the midway point of his freshman season, but his contributions have been more on the defensive end. Last season, Wilkins, in the shadow of Gill, scored 4.6 points per game in 21.4 minutes per game, shooting 51.8 percent from the field, showcasing a consistent mid-range jumper, and getting a fair share of points on kickbacks.

Reuter (6’7”, 243) had some moments as a freshman last season, most notably a strong first half against Cal in a game in which he posted a career-high 11 points, and arguably Virginia doesn’t win that game in OT without Reuter doing what he did to keep the Cavs in the game.

But Reuter scored just eight points per game as a senior on a loaded Brewster Academy team. His value is energy, effort, rebounding and solid defense.

Which is pretty much what you get from Salt (6’11”, 247), who did average 18.9 points per game as a high school senior in 2012-2013, but what we’ve seen from him at the college level is that he can set really, really mean picks, can catch the ball under the basket and flush it, and that’s about it.

Huff, if you get that far down, is listed at a stringy 6’11”, 215, and though he averaged 16.3 points per game as a high-school senior last year, he’s going to have to do some bulking up to be able to contribute in the ACC, which is probably why Bennett wanted to redshirt him.

What you might see Bennett experiment with is going four-guard, because of the incredible depth at the one, two and three positions – with London Perrantes, Darius Thompson, Devon Hall and Marial Shayok bringing experience, and newcomers Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome fighting the veterans for minutes.

You can see Shayok, a lockdown defender who plays bigger, and thicker, than his listed 6’5”, 196, playing some stretch-four minutes, as you could see with Hall (6’5”, 207).

Defensively, this team, with the various combinations that Bennett can run out there, can actually be better with the pressure that the extra speed and athleticism can bring.

But offensively, it’s no question that the loss of Nichols is huge.

With Nichols, Virginia was a bona fide Final Four contender in 2016-2017. Without him, I don’t think that case can be made right now.

Column by Chris Graham

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