Two teams picked to finish in the top tier of their respective conferences will tip off the season when Navy visits No. 25 Virginia on Tuesday night in Charlottesville.
The Midshipmen, under 11th-year head coach Ed DeChellis, were picked to finish third in the Patriot League behind Boston University and Colgate. Navy returns four starters and 10 letter winners from a team that went 15-3 overall and 12-1 in the conference last season.
The Cavaliers, under 13th-year head coach Tony Bennett, were selected fourth in the media’s preseason poll in the Atlantic Coast Conference, trailing Duke, Florida State and North Carolina.
Virginia returns two starters and added two key transfers to a squad that went 18-7 and won the ACC regular-season title at 13-4 in 2020-21. The Cavaliers, however, were upset by Ohio University in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Virginia has won its past last eight meetings with Navy, including 65-56 in the most recent clash on Dec. 29, 2019.
Midshipmen guard John Carter Jr., now a senior, had one of the worst games of his career that night against the stingy Virginia “pack line” defense, missing 10 of his 11 shots from the field. Carter is Navy’s top returning scorer, averaging 10.9 points per game last season.
Virginia point guard Kihei Clark, also a senior now, is the team’s top returning scorer (9.5 points per game). He had a double-double with 10 points and 13 assists in that victory over the Midshipmen.
Clark is one of three holdovers from the Cavaliers’ 2018-19 national championship team, along with senior guards Kody Stattmann and Jayden Nixon.
Last season’s top three scorers for Virginia are now trying to make their way in the NBA: guard Trey Murphy III (Pelicans) and forwards Sam Hauser (Celtics) and Jay Huff (Lakers). Those three accounted for more than 40 points per game, firepower that Bennett replaced via the transfer portal.
Senior forward Jayden Gardner averaged 18.0 points and 8.7 rebounds over three seasons at East Carolina, while junior guard Armaan Franklin posted 11.4 points and 4.1 rebounds and shot 42.4 percent from 3-point range last season at Indiana.
The 6-foot-6, 246-pound Gardner is “a tank,” Virginia associate head coach Jason Williford told the team website.
Williford said Gardner’s biggest challenge has been “just learning how we play in general.”
“The small things — making the right pass, being in the right position defensively, all of the nuances of what we do and what’s made us good — he’s still trying to figure that stuff out,” Williford said.
Navy’s veterans should have it all figured out by now.
Carter (77 games), fellow seniors Greg Summers (74) and Richard Njoku (63) and junior forward Tyler Nelson (47) have a lot of experience together. The only starter who graduated was two-time All-Patriot League guard Cam Davis, the Mids’ leading scorer last season (17.1).
“We have a really good senior group,” DeChellis said in an interview on Glenn Clark Radio. “They’ve played a lot of minutes. They’ve played in a lot of big games. We’re relying on them. We’re counting on them to do special things, and I think they’ve shown good leadership so far this fall.”
Virginia has an eight-game winning streak on opening night and is 11-1 in season openers under Bennett.
Navy has not won an opener on the road since a 2011 victory at Longwood.
–Field Level Media