The Learning Curve
By Steve Kirkland
Every year, hundreds of thousands of teenagers enter college. It is a time of adjustment. For most, it is the first time in their life that they are out in the world on their own. Compound that with a challenging academic curriculum and it can be an intimidating new world.
For one segment of that group, the challenge of being a freshman in college is increased by being a Division I basketball player. Not only must you adjust to the same challenges as all of your classmates, you must also adjust to new teammates and coaches and a spotlight brighter than you have ever had before playing the game.
Since the summer, this has been the world of Jontel Evans and Tristan Spurlock. Although the Cavalier first-years admit that the transition has been challenging at times, each day they are more comfortable with their spot at Virginia, both on and off the court.
“When you get to college, you have to learn to be independent,” said Evans, a 5-11 guard from Hampton. “You have to grow up and be more mature in all phases of your life; school, social and basketball.”
“The freedom you get is both good and bad,” adds Spurlock, a 6-8 guard/forward from Woodbridge. “I have freedom in when I do my homework, how I spend my free time, but there are consequences for all those actions. You have to be mature enough to make the right choices.”
Just as they have had to learn to make the right decisions off the court, Evans and Spurlock have had to learn to make the right decisions on the court too.
“I have learned so much about the game so far,” said Evans. “I learned you have to be patient. You have to have a short-term memory. In high school, if I made a mistake, I would get down on myself and sometimes it would stay with me the rest of the game. When I got here, and I would make a mistake, coach (Tony) Bennett and coach (Ritchie) McKay quickly taught me to put it behind me, learn from it, but don’t dwell on it.”
The lessons for freshman players are not limited to Xs and Os and confidence on the court. Many high school players get by using their talent and size advantages. But when you reach the college level, those advantages disappear and the best way go gain and edge is outworking everyone else.
“The biggest thing I have learned what it takes to be good at this level,” said Spurlock. “There is a lot of work you have to put into it. Just because you go to practice, doesn’t mean you’ve done enough. You have stay after. You have to go in by yourself. You have to do so much more than in high school. I thought showing up a few minutes early for practice and getting some shots in was good. But that is nothing. That is just the bare minimum. You have to go above and beyond just to keep up.”
For Evans and Spurlock, their transition has been helped by the veterans on the Virginia roster. Those older players remember their own adjustment period when they came into the program and how they were able to learn from those experiences.
“The older guys have been a big help,” said Evans. “When we first got here, Tristan and I would get down on ourselves. The older guys would pull us aside and give us advice, tell us to keep our heads up. When we weren’t getting many minutes, they were the ones telling us to be patient, that our time would come. They are just a bunch of real nice guys who want to see their teammates improve.”
As the season progressed, the young players were able to see the payoff of the hard work. Not only in their roles on the team, but in the team’s success early in ACC play. Just as Evans and Spurlock were adjusting to college, every member of the team was adjusting to a new coaching staff with new strategies.
“When we first got here, we really didn’t know much about the staff,” said Spurlock. “But as we got to know them, we realized what a blessing it is to have this staff here. They are great to us and have taught us so much. But they expect a lot from us.”
Every freshman in college has ups and downs as they adapt to their new life away from home. For basketball players, having support of coaches and teammates can help make the transition in a way easier. As Evans and Spurlock incorporate themselves further into the Cavalier program, Virginia basketball will only get better.