Can Virginia’s guards carry the Cavs without Austin Nichols?

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

Great point guard play? Check.

Stifling defense? Check.

Outside shooters? Check.

Loads of athleticism? Check.

Virginia has shown through four games this season it has plenty going for it. The Cavaliers are trying for a fourth straight season with at least 29 wins and finishing in the top two of the ACC. The question, as UVA gets into a tougher part of the schedule with a Friday game against Iowa, is if the Cavs can continue to win big without a significant offensive contribution from the frontcourt.

Even without star forward Austin Nichols, who transferred from Memphis and then was booted off the team after just one game with Virginia, coach Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers have been perhaps the most dominant team in the country so far… albeit against mostly weak competition. Tuesday night in Charlottesville, the Cavs led poor Grambling State by 40 points at halftime before cruising to a 90-34 victory.

With the win, Virginia became the first team in the shot clock era to hold three consecutive opponents to fewer than 40 points. That includes a 62-38 thrashing of Yale, which is averaging 83 points per game against teams not named Virginia.

Defense has always been the cornerstone of Bennett’s program, but that might be even more important this season given the offensive questions raised by Nichols’ departure. The Cavaliers haven’t exactly struggled to score against their mid-major opponents early this season, but without Nichols the lion’s share of the offensive production is coming from the backcourt.

Virginia has four players averaging eight points or more per game, all perimeter players. Senior point guard London Perrantes has shown the ability to score when he needs to, but has been perfectly content to distribute the ball in the early-season laughers. Wing players Marial Shayok (12.5 ppg) and Kyle Guy (11 ppg) are the only Cavs averaging double figures, while Darius Thompson (9.8 ppg) is a super athlete and streaky shooter who looks more and more like a poor man’s Justin Anderson with each game.

The Cavaliers don’t necessarily have a go-to guy who can carry them through rough stretches they way they did with ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon last season, but Perrantes has been a clutch shooter in the past. Guy, who lit up Grambling for 20 points, has one of the smoothest strokes and quickest releases in college basketball — he’s only a freshman, too.

Despite those perimeter contributions, it seems likely Virginia will have to find a low-post scoring option as the games get tougher and ACC play nears. Nichols, who averaged more than 13 points per game as a sophomore at Memphis, was supposed to provide that after UVA lost Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey from last season’s Elite Eight squad.

Junior Isaiah Wilkins, who showed flashes of quality in a reserve role last season, seems like the most likely choice to step up as a consistent scorer in Nichols’ absence. However, after scoring 10 points and grabbing nine rebounds in the opener at UNC Greensboro, the stepson of NBA legend Dominique Wilkins hasn’t scored more than five points in three subsequent contests.

The Cavalier to keep an eye on is redshirt freshman Mamade Diakite. The 6-9, 215-pound native of Guinea still needs to add some bulk and was considered raw offensively while sitting out last year. Thus far he’s proved to be a shot blocking machine and efficient offensive player in limited minutes. Diakite is shooting better than 80 percent from the field and scored eight points in two of the past three games. Tuesday he even showed some range, knocking down a 17-foot jumper with confidence.

How quickly the inexperienced but superbly athletic Diakite develops could be the key to the new-look Cavs’ season. Virginia knows precisely what it has with Perrantes leading the offense; Guy and Shayok look like they will get the job done on the wing.

It’s up to Wilkins or Diakite to develop into an adequate scorer on the low block if the Cavaliers are going to match preseason expectations.

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