By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He may never be the shooter that Jimmy Baron is. Few basketball players are. But Billy Baron did his big brother proud Friday night, turning the game in UVa’s favor with a display of long-range marksmanship rarely seen at John Paul Jones Arena.
Baron, a 6-2 guard from Rhode Island, hit 6 of 8 shots, including 5 of 6 from beyond the arc. On the court where, on his visit to UVa last December, he shot until 4:30 a.m., Baron also had a steal that he converted into a layup, handed out three assists and finished with a game-high 19 points in a season-opening 76-52 rout of William and Mary.
“He really gave us the spark we needed,” second-year coach Tony Bennett said. “Again, you have to stick some outside shots against them, and he was a big lift for us. He’s got that ability to stretch it, not just from the 3-point line, but a step or two back.”
Jimmy Baron, a 6-3 guard now playing professionally in Spain, hit 361 treys, still an Atlantic 10 Conference record, during an illustrious career at the University of Rhode Island, where the head coach is the brothers’ father, Jim Baron.
There’s a video on YouTube of Jimmy’s shooting feats titled The LongBall. If the highlights were not from college games, you might think they were staged, so deep is Jimmy’s range.
“I’m his biggest fan,” said Billy, sporting a Manchester United jacket after the game. “I’m more proud of him than anybody. Even to this day, and that was two years ago, I watch that every day. He doesn’t know that, but just watching that gave me a lot of confidence.”
Five of the Cavaliers’ six scholarship freshmen played against W&M (0-1), including 6-4 guard K.T. Harrell, who started and scored 13 points. The exception was 6-9 James Johnson, whom Bennett plans to redshirt this season.
With only 80 minutes to divide among six post players — the others are 6-8 senior Mike Scott, 7-0 junior Assane Sene, 6-9 senior Will Sherrill, 6-8 freshman Akil Mitchell and 6-8 freshman Will Regan — it made sense for Virginia to redshirt one of them. Bennett loves the prospect of having Johnson, an excellent athlete with enormous potential, back as a fifth-year senior.
“I think he could help us [this season], because he’s a rugged body, and you guys know how the games will get and the physicality on the glass,” Bennett said. “But James feels very comfortable with it. We sat and talked, and it was a decision that he and I made. It’s always what’s best for the player and what’s best for the program, especially in the long range.”
Of UVa’s scholarship freshmen, only Baron was not a 12th-grader last season. He was enrolled in the postgraduate program at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts. That was probably was one reason he looked more poised at times than his classmates Friday night.
“I kind of joked and said we’re probably going to have to put some newspapers on the floor for our young pups out there,” Bennett said, “I think there was some nerves involved, and you could see [in Baron] someone who’s just a year older, has been in probably more competitive games. That’s important. I think there will be some ups and downs, certainly with the young guys.”
After building an eight-point lead, UVa failed to score in the final 4:31 of the first half. The Tribe went into the break trailing 28-27, and the crowd of 10,003 at JPJ had reason to be uneasy.
The Wahoos’ lead was only five, 46-41, with 12 minutes to play, but then Baron took over. In a span of less than three minutes, he made two 3-pointers, two free throws and a layup to push Virginia’s lead to 57-41. After one of W&M’s seven second-half turnovers, point guard Jontel Evans then fed Sene for a fast-break dunk that brought fans to their feet.
Evans, a 5-11 sophomore, sparkled throughout. He finished with 6 points, 7 assists and 1 steal, with only 1 turnover, and played the suffocating defense that has become his trademark.
“The thing I really like about Jontel is he sets our defense, and he pushes our point of attack defensively,” Bennett said. “When he’s bulldogging or hounding the ball, [opponents] can’t start their offense as deep.
“He’s improved. He’s had a good offseason, a good preseason in the fall, and he showed some steadiness. He can change a game with some steals, and he gets us down the floor in transition so fast. I like that, when he has the ball and he puts pressure on [the opposing team] just as he does on the defensive end.”
Baron can speak to Evans’ defensive prowess.
“I’ve been going against Jontel every single day,” Baron said with a smile. “He’s really prepared me for his moment, and I’m just grateful to be in this position. It’s nice to play with him, let’s just say that.”
After an uneven first half, Scott finished with 18 points and a game-high 9 rebounds.
“The first half, I really couldn’t make a lot of shots,” Scott said. “It was frustrating, but that’s just part of my maturity level, just not to focus on trying to score so much when my shot’s not going, but trying to get to the free-throw line or rebound or defend.”
W&M, which won 22 games last season, tested the Cavaliers’ defense with its Princeton-style offense that spread the floor with 3-point threats.
“They’re well-coached,” Bennett said. Tribe coach Tony Shaver “does a heck of a job. And if you fall asleep against them, they usually exploit that … But it was good to see our defense spark us a little bit in the second half, and then certainly guys got hot and got it going. You have to make some outside shots against their zone, but you also have to establish some inside touches, and Mike had a better second half, and the inside-outside attack helped. And then we just kept saying, ‘Make them earn [their points], make them play over the top.’ ”
The fourth Cavalier to score in double figures was senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan, who hit three treys and finished with 10 points. He also had 4 boards, 2 steals and an assist. In all, the ‘Hoos handed out 17 assists, which pleased Bennett as much as his players’ 12-for-23 shooting from 3-point range.
“They’re an unselfish group,” Bennett said.
Sherrill said: “I think that really showed tonight, making the extra pass, because we got a lot of good open looks, and we were knocking them down. And that’s what we should do, because we’ve got a lot of good shooters on the team.”
UVa’s next game — its last one at JPJ until Dec. 7 — is Monday night against USC Upstate, which begins its fourth season of Division I play Saturday at Michigan. The jitters that Bennett’s newcomers battled Friday night figure to be gone by Monday.
“You’re going to have the butterflies,” Farrakhan said. “They didn’t know what to expect out there, but I think they responded well once everybody settled down, so it was great.”