Three seasons removed from winning the NCAA championship, No. 25 Virginia is plotting its course for another overachieving campaign under Tony Bennett.
The perennially underrated Cavaliers, who have won the regular season title five of the last eight years, are picked to place fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But this year, talk of Virginia’s long-awaited slump might be justified. On Tuesday night, when the Cavaliers dropped a 66-58 decision to Navy in their opener at home, it was the first time the Midshipmen had beaten a ranked team since the David Robinson era in 1986.
“The newness of our team showed,” Bennett said. “Navy’s a good team. They put a lot of pressure on us with our defense and I think maybe they wore us down.”
When host Virginia (0-1) takes on Radford (1-0) on Friday in Charlottesville, Va., the Cavaliers will face another formidable small conference foe with nothing to lose.
Virginia will count on big-bodied East Carolina transfer Jaylen Gardner, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds on Tuesday.
The Cavaliers will need more from highly touted Indiana transfer Armaan Franklin, who missed 6 of 7 shots from beyond the arc and finished with seven points.
Virginia returns only two of its top eight rotation players from last year. Point guard Kihei Clark, however, gives the Cavaliers a veteran presence in the backcourt and a touchstone to their national championship season, when he was a key reserve.
The Cavaliers look to shore up their trademark defense, which surrendered eight 3-pointers in 10 attempts as Navy took a first-half lead that it didn’t relinquish.
“A couple of times we just didn’t get to a shooter,” Bennett said. “We didn’t have our hands up. Guys beat us quick outside. There are some principles we have and they just kind of attacked.”
Radford is guided by first-year head coach Darris Nichols, who has returned to his hometown.
Nichols brings high-level experience as a four-year player at West Virginia and six years as an assistant at Florida. Nichols has a tough act to follow in Mike Jones, who guided Radford to an 81-47 mark over the last four years before leaving for UNC Greensboro.
Nichols had a successful debut as Radford prevailed over Emory & Henry, 84-72, on Tuesday.
Camron McNeil, who averaged 18.2 points and 6.6 rebounds last year at Spartanburg Methodist (S.C.), continued his stellar play from the preseason. He came off the bench to lead Radford with 17 points.
Dravon Mangum and South Florida transfer Rashun Williams each scored 13 points and combined to hit 6 of 11 shots from beyond the arc.
Nichols has a strong cast back from last year, including five of the Highlanders’ top eight scorers. The team has plenty of muscle up front with veteran rotation pieces Lewis Djonkam and Shaquan Jules.
–Field Level Media
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