#7 Virginia by Mike Rutherford

Photo: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

In a 2016 NCAA Tournament that was defined by improbable upsets and unbelievable finishes, few things were more startling than the manner in which the Virginia Cavaliers saw their season come to an end.

Leading 10th-seeded Syracuse by 15 with just 9:33 to play, Virginia appeared poised to fully exorcise the March demons that had haunted them in recent years and get into the Final Four for the first time under Tony Bennett. After all, given the tempo and poise with which Bennett's Cavaliers always play, a 15-point lead midway through the second half may as well be a 40-point advantage.

Instead, Syracuse got out of its comfort zone and initiated a relentless full court press. Shockingly, the experienced and typically sure-handed Virginia squad completely unraveled, making careless turnovers and surrendering easy basket after easy basket. The result was a 25-4 Syracuse run that handed the Orange a 68-62 ticket to Houston, and Virginia a stunning trip back home.

The bad news for UVA is that the bulk of the production from that team is gone. All-American Malcolm Brogdon averaged 18.2 points per game, senior forward Anthony Gill led the Cavs with 6.1 rebounds per game, and senior big man Mike Tobey led the team in field goal percentage and blocked shots. Between them, those three players attempted 52.3 percent of Virginia's shots in 2015-16.

The good news is that Bennett has an experienced returnee at arguably the most important position on the court for his system, and an All-ACC caliber transfer to help make up for the frontcourt losses. Toss in a couple of other veterans expected to take a step forward and one of the highest-rated recruiting classes in Virginia history, and you have all the makings of a team with the potential to make it back to a regional final and seal the deal this time.

How Virginia can succeed: By continuing to make people forget about last season's departures

Every season Virginia seems to lose one or two guys that the rest of the country says Bennett won't be able to replace, and every season we all feel extremely stupid when February rolls around and the Cavaliers are ranked in the top 10. There would be little justification for having Virginia as high as we do if we hadn't seen this song and dance play out multiple times before.

Brogdon was one of the best players in UVA history, and Gill and Tobey were tremendous when it came to playing their parts, but that doesn't mean that the Cavaliers will be taking a monster step back in 2016-17 ... or any sort of step back.

The biggest reason for that is the addition of Memphis transfer Austin Nichols, who ranked third nationally with 3.4 blocked shots per game as a sophomore for the Tigers two seasons ago. Assuming he picks up Bennett's vaunted Pack Line Defense without much difficulty, Nichols should make the frontcourt departures an absorbable blow.

Helping Nichols out inside (and outside) is returning starter Isaiah Wilkins, whose play this summer and fall has many Cavalier fans expecting a breakout season. The junior was the team's fifth-leading scorer last season, but sharing the floor with Brogdon and Gill made that mean an average of just 4.6 points per game. Expect that number, and all of his other numbers, to increase dramatically this season.

The most important returning piece, however, is senior point guard London Perrantes, who will have opposing fans making horrible "how long has this guy been there?' jokes all season. The only scholarship senior on the team, Perrantes had a breakout season in 2015-16, shedding the stigma of being a "game manager" by scoring 11.0 points per game to go with 4.4 assists per game. Everything on offense will run through Perrantes in 2016-17, and the senior will also be relied upon to be the director of the defensive attack on the other end of the floor as well.

While Bennett figures to start the season with a lineup loaded with juniors and a senior, it'll be interesting to see how he weaves his heralded group of newcomers into the fold as the season goes on.

McDonald's All-American Kyle Guy was billed as one of the best outside shooters in the 2016 class, a skillset which could land him major minutes right out of the gate. Redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite has a ways to go offensively, but is already a terrific shot-blocker who will likely be the first big man to come off the Virginia bench. Four-star guard Ty Jerome will also get an opportunity to earn court time, as will fellow guard De'Andre Hunter and freshman center Jay Huff.

Despite losing so many key pieces from last season's team, the 2016-17 Cavaliers may actually be deeper than they were a season ago. That's an almost unfair advantage for a squad that ranked No. 7 in the country in defensive efficiency last season, and could easily lead the nation in that category this year.

How the Cavaliers can go home early: The new frontcourt doesn't gel and replacing Brogdon and company proves too tough a task

Despite the cliche, history fails to repeat itself more times than not, especially when we're talking about sports. Virginia not missing a beat despite losing All-ACC performers in recent seasons is certainly a decent indication that fans can expect the phenomenon to continue in 2016-17, but it's not a guarantee.

Malcolm Brogdon was the 2016 ACC Player of the Year, the 2016 ACC Defensive Player of the Year, a first team Associated Press All-American, and a finalist for the Naismith Award. That's not a resume that's easy to replace. He also averaged almost 20 points per game for a team that, uh, isn't known for scoring all that much.

We can assume that Perrantes will thrive in his new role as "the man," that Nichols will pick up right where he left off two seasons ago at Memphis, and that Wilkins, Devon Hall and Mariel Shayok will take full advantage of an increase in playing time, but none of those predictions are locks. And even if they all come to fruition, maybe they still aren't an adequate substitute for all the things that Brogdon and company brought to the table.

The other issue is inside, where Nichols, Wilkins and the inexperienced newcomers will have to learn how to communicate and be in the right position the way Tobey and Gill were at seemingly every moment last season. With the Pack Line, trust and communication are more important factors for success at UVA than they are for 99 percent of the other teams in college hoops. If the big men can't establish a connection on the defensive end, then the Cavaliers could wind up taking some unexpected spills during the season's opening weeks.