Virginia forward Mamadi Diakite played a key role in the Cavaliers' run to the national championship last season. This season, he is expected to be one of the team's veteran leaders. 

Kody Stattmann won a national championship last season.

He also only played 73 minutes all season, including just one minute in the NCAA Tournament.

Mamadi Diakite won a national championship last season.

He played more combined minutes (78) in the Elite Eight win over Purdue and the Final Four win over Auburn than Stattmann played all season.

Coming off a national championship, Virginia’s players have different mentalities heading into this year. For Diakite, he’s been through quite a bit on the college basketball floor. As a sophomore, he saw his season end in historic fashion against UMBC. As a junior, he made a shot against Purdue that will live forever in Virginia basketball history.

Players like Stattmann and even players like Jay Huff don’t have that same level of playing experience. There’s still a chip on their shoulders despite having won a championship earlier this calendar year.

“I’m definitely going to put it aside,” Stattmann said of last season. “This is a new year. I’m going to go get it again.”

Others, like freshman Casey Morsell, weren’t even on the team last season.

“It doesn’t feel weird,” Morsell said of joining a championship team. “It just motivates me to come and bring another one back, simple as that.”

Virginia will have a bull’s eye on its back all season as opponents relish the opportunity to knock off the defending national champion. But many players expected to take on critical roles weren’t the primary reasons why Virginia earned that target. It’s an interesting dynamic. 

Opposing teams may view the Cavaliers as defending champions, but internally that assessment isn’t quite the same. Players like Stattmann and Morsell know they have something to prove individually.

It’s unusual for a defending national champion to include so many returning players with something still to prove. Even Diakite, arguably the most proven returning Cavalier, wants to prove to NBA executives that his game translates to the next level.

He’s done his best to answer how he’s improved his game in recent media sessions, but it’s clear the power forward would rather everyone wait to see him on the court rather than continually try to explain the areas he’s improved his game.

“In many ways, I’ve gotten better,” Diakite said. “As the season goes through, we’ll find out, but definitely my shooting got better, I’m able to stretch the floor more. I’ve still got what I had before. I’ve just put more on top of that.”

Diakite believes his defense also improved, which is a scary thought for ACC teams. The redshirt senior averaged three blocked shots per 40 minutes last season, and he blocked 16 shots in the NCAA Tournament.

Virginia won the national championship last season, but it’s a team with players who want to prove themselves to the country. There’s experience within the group, and Coach Tony Bennett is rapidly becoming a college basketball coaching icon.

It’s easy to temper expectations for this Virginia team, and there’s uncertainty surrounding how the Cavaliers will look when they take the floor for the first time. There’s a revamped back court and increased roles for players in the front court, and the season may include a few growing pains.

“My hope is we can be a sound defensive team, and then figure out ways to score with balance, inside, outside,” Bennett said. “That will be the key this year. Again, until you see guys in game settings, I think we won’t know for sure. But I think it’s everybody trying to push hard and not being too consumed with what happened last year or what’s expected this year.”

Regardless of the outside feelings surrounding this roster and the varying levels of experience, the Cavaliers possess a talented roster of players hungry to prove themselves. With one of the top coaches in the game leading the way, there’s reason to believe the Cavaliers won’t go down quietly in their national championship defense.

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