Veteran leadership a key cog for Cavaliers

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 SPORTS) -- Tony Bennett has said that his Virginia men's basketball team last season was one of the best player-led groups the coach has ever seen.

That leadership started with the Cavaliers' two seniors, guard Devon Hall and forward Isaiah Wilkins, along with fourth-year junior center Jack Salt. Those three provided the foundation for a UVA team that won a school-record 31 games and reached No. 1 in the country, and earned ACC regular-season and tournament championships before March's historic upset loss to UMBC in the NCAA Tournament.

This season, Salt is the only senior on the roster, but the Wahoos have picked up where they left off a year ago. They'll take a 13-0 record and a No. 4 national ranking in the Associated Press top 25 (No. 1 in the coaches poll) into Wednesday's ACC road opener at Boston College.

And Bennett says this year's team is showing signs of having similar leadership inside the locker room, starting with junior point guard Ty Jerome.

"Maybe it's accountability, or it's just competitive. They're a competitive group in practice. They challenge each other," Bennett said. "Ty is one of the fiercest competitors, with his game and his mind, and with his mouth too. In practice, he'll let guys know and he'll stir the pot. And I like that, certainly to a certain extent."

Jerome has started all 47 games for UVA the past two seasons. Fellow junior guard Kyle Guy has started all but one game in that stretch. They're the only two players averaging more than 30 minutes per game for the Cavaliers this season. Salt started all 68 of UVA's games the previous two seasons, and 10 of the 12 games he's played in this year.

Redshirt junior Mamadi Diakite has started UVA's last four games, and has played at least 21 minutes in the last five after breaking the 20-minute mark just once in the Cavaliers' first eight contests. He's had at least four rebounds and one block in each of those games as well.

Sophomores De'Andre Hunter and Jay Huff are both in their third years at UVA after redshirting in 2016-17. Hunter is second on the team in both scoring (13.8 ppg) and rebounding (5.1 rpg) this year, and has started all 13 games. Huff has appeared in 12 games off the bench, and his scoring (4.2) and rebounding (2.3) averages are both up from last season as well.

Bennett believes those veterans to the UVA culture have served as catalysts in the development of newcomers to the program this season, like Alabama transfer Braxton Key and freshman guard Kihei Clark.

"They want to be good. They care for each other and they'll push each other, and I think there's compassion too," Bennett said. "So I like what I've seen, and it's just a process, an evolution. Those are some adjustments going on, but I think it's been going well."



 
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