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Looking ahead: Virginia Cavaliers

Editor's note: It's never too early to start to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage.

Perfect timing for this, huh?

The Virginia Cavaliers, the back-to-back ACC champions, ended the 2014-15 season as an early candidate for the No. 1 slot in the upcoming preseason polls. Coach Tony Bennett didn't sign a ranked recruiting class because he didn't need the help, and it's not as if Virginia has a bunch of scholarships available.

With Virginia's Rat Pack -- Justin Anderson, Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill -- all set to return, it appeared the Cavs would still be the team to beat in 2015-16 and, once again, a contender for the national championship.

And then, Monday happened.

Virginia had already lost senior Darion Atkins (7.6 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.1 BPG), a key piece on both ends of the floor for the Cavs this season.

On Monday, however, Jeff Goodman reported Anderson will enter the NBA draft and leave Charlottesville, Virginia. It's a smart move for the talented wing who was a candidate for the Wooden Award until he was sidelined by a hand injury in the season's last stanza. But the decision also robbed Virginia's 2015-16 assembly of its most talented player.

Anderson finished the season with a 120.5 ranking on KenPom.com, 33rd among players with a usage rate of 20 percent or higher. He hit 45 percent of his 3-pointers and 48 percent of his 2s. The 6-6 guard/forward, who averaged 12.2 PPG, missed eight games because of injury. Virginia finished 7-1 during that stretch. The Cavaliers, however, didn't face the ACC's best during that portion of the season. And they never really looked like the same juggernauts they appeared to be prior to Anderson's injury.

Still, ignore the early Twitter chatter that projects doom for Bennett's crew. Virginia's prospects for the upcoming season have been tempered, slightly, but the team will still be competitive in 2015-16.

What the immediate future holds: Yes, there are some recent examples of teams that lost their respective mojos after former stars turned pro.

Connecticut won the national championship with Shabazz Napier but then failed to make the NCAA tournament without him. Florida, a Final Four team in 2013-14, tumbled in the SEC standings following a mass exodus of talent. Michigan struggled without Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III (Caris LeVert's injury factored into the team's challenges, too).

And there are also recent examples of programs that pushed forward in similar situations. Wichita State reached the Sweet 16 without Cleanthony Early. Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid left Lawrence, Kansas, but the Jayhawks won their 11th consecutive Big 12 championship. Losing Russ Smith and Luke Hancock didn't stop Louisville from winning 27 games and reaching the Elite Eight.

There is also the 2014-15 Virginia team that won its second consecutive ACC crown after losing Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell.

Virginia, without Anderson and Atkins, falls in the latter grouping. No, the Cavaliers won't enter the season as a top-three squad in the preseason national rankings. But Bennett's squad will remain a player in the ACC.

Here's the thing. In three of the past four seasons, Virginia has finished sixth or better in KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. The Cavs were No. 1 in 2014-15. That defensive congruity will guide Virginia again in 2015-16.

Plus, it's not as if Virginia will enter next season without talent. Brogdon could be -- and should be -- a preseason All-American. Gill, London Perrantes and Mike Tobey are all back, too. Tennessee transfer Darius Thompson (3.73 percent steals rate per KenPom.com in 2013-14) fits Bennett's defensive philosophy. He'll help. Four-star prospect Jarred Reuter is a 6-8 enforcer who will crash the boards and give Bennett a big body in a tough league. He'll have to mature quickly and contribute early.

Atkins and Anderson were both significant performers for Virginia. Anderson's return might have positioned Virginia as an early favorite to win next season's national championship.

But he's gone now.

So Bennett will need someone or multiple players to make up for the loss of Anderson's offensive production. He won't add anyone who can match Anderson's skill set, although Marial Shayok, a freshman who averaged 3.8 PPG last season, could carry a heavier load.

But Virginia's defense will anchor its season.

And the Cavaliers will be ready to defend their ACC crown in 2015-16.