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Final Four or bust: UVA basketball ready for deep run

uva basketball practiceRemember when being on the fringe of the preseason Top 25 was high expectations for UVA basketball? Now the sixth-ranked Cavs are a trendy national-champ pick for the experts, which is a sign of what back-to-back 30-win seasons and ACC regular-season championships will do for you.

But with all the success of the past two seasons, one thing Virginia hasn’t done is make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Both seasons ended at the feet of Michigan State, in 2014 in the Sweet 16, and in 2015 in the Round of 32.

A deep, experienced roster returns for 2015-2016, with National Player of the Year candidate Malcolm Brogdon and favorite Anthony Gill shouldering the load for coach Tony Bennett, whose roster returns 76.9 percent of its minutes from a year ago.

In addition to Brogdon (14.0 points per game, 42.2 percent shooting in 2014-2015) and Gill (11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, 58.2 percent shooting), Virginia returns Mike Tobey (6.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 51.4 percent shooting) and London Perrantes (6.4 points and 4.0 assists per game) to the starting lineup.

Tobey split time as a post starter with Darion Atkins (7.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 51.1 percent shooting), and Evan Nolte (3.1 ppg, 35.4 percent shooting) subbed for Justin Anderson (12.2 ppg, 46.6 percent shooting) at the three.

Expect Nolte to get the starting nod at three in place of Anderson, with Marial Shayok (3.8 ppg, 40.5 percent shooting) the first perimeter player off the bench.

Isaiah Wilkins (1.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg in 9.4 minutes per game in 2014-2015) will be the first post off the bench.

Also competing for time in Bennett’s rotation will be perimeter players Darius Thompson (2.6 ppg, 2.4 apg at Tennessee in 2013-2014), Devon Hall (1.8 ppg, 40.0 percent shooting) and Jack Salt, a 6’11” redshirt freshman.

Bennett is challenging his veteran-laden group with a difficult early-season schedule – with just five of the Cavs’ 12 games in November and December in Charlottesville. Two of those come against Power 5 teams, #9 Villanova and #14 Cal, and there are road games at George Washington and Ohio State, and a neutral-site game in Madison Square Garden against #23 West Virginia.

The season opens Friday with Morgan State, and then it’s to the road Monday at GW, before a trip down to Charleston, S.C., for the Nov. 19-22 Charleston Classic, which includes Bradley, Seton Hall, Long Beach State, George Mason, Towson, Oklahoma State and Ole Miss.

The early tests away from home are designed to test the ‘Hoos away from the cozy confines of the John Paul Jones Arena, where Virginia has gone 30-3 over the past two seasons.

UVA’s ACC home schedule includes #18 Notre Dame (Jan. 2), Syracuse (Jan. 23), #1 North Carolina (Feb. 27) and Louisville (March 5).

The ACC Tournament is March 8-12 in Washington, D.C.

Likely first- and second-round NCAA Tournament sites are in Raleigh and Brooklyn. Regional sites are in Philadelphia (East), Louisville (South), Chicago (Midwest) and Anaheim (West).

The 2016 Final Four is at NRG Stadium in Houston.

See you there.

– Story by Chris Graham