By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The eagerly anticipated UVa debut of forward Anthony Gill played to good reviews Friday night at John Paul Jones Arena, as did the long-awaited return of guard Malcolm Brogdon, who missed last season while recovering from a foot injury.
In a season-opener marked by ragged play, 24th-ranked Virginia pounded James Madison 61-41 before a boisterous crowd of 11,934. Gill, a 6-8 redshirt sophomore who sat out last season after transferring to UVa from South Carolina, went 5 for 5 from the floor and scored a team-high 13 points.
For more than a year, Gill’s teammates and coaches had been raving about his relentless around the basket, and that was not hyberbole. Gill attempted a game-high five free throws Friday night.
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett “told me to be aggressive, and that’s what I did,” Gill said. “I like contact, and I seek it every time I shoot the ball.”
Bennett said: “He draws contact, he plays through contact, and he has a nose for the basket, and you saw stretches of that for sure.”
From Brogdon, spectators saw a more polished version of the player who was the Cavaliers’ sixth man for most of the 2011-12 season. A 6-5 redshirt sophomore, Brogdon started at point guard and scored nine points in his first appearance since Feb. 25, 2012. He tied his career high with three 3-pointers, all in the first half.
“It was a great feeling being back out there with my team rather than watching from the sideline,” Brogdon said, “and getting my first win since freshman year, it’s nice.
“I have easy teammates to play with. We’re very unselfish, we play really well together and I’m really excited for our future.”
Gill said he and Brogdon “created a bond last year that’s pretty much inseparable. And to come out here with him and be on the court with him is just great.”
The Wahoos, who never trailed Friday night, had other standouts, including big men Mike Tobey (10 points) and Darion Atkins (eight points, 11 rebounds). There was also freshman guard London Perrantes, whose parents surprised him by flying in from Los Angeles for the game. The 6-2 Perrantes played 25 minutes and contributed steady play in his college debut.
“I was nervous deep down inside,” Perrantes said, “but it’s just the game that I’ve been playing for years, so it’s nothing new. Just a bigger setting, different team, playing against different opponents.”
The `Hoos came away from the opener with much to work on. They made only 4 of 18 attempts from 3-point range and only 7 of 14 from the line against a JMU team picked to finish seventh in the nine-team Colonial Athletic Association.
“We’re not as good as all of you are saying,” Bennett told reporters at his postgame press conference, and his players sounded a similar theme.
“Even though we got the win, I didn’t think that we played our best basketball at all,” All-ACC guard Joe Harris said after a game in which he had more rebounds (seven) than points (five).
“But at the same time, this is the beginning of the season. If we were perfect now, I think that would probably be a problem. It’s tough to build off anything like that.”
Still, to defeat their next opponent, the Cavaliers know they’ll have to play better than they did against the Dukes. No. 14 VCU opened Friday night with a 96-58 romp over Illinois State in Richmond. The `Hoos host the Rams at 7 p.m. Tuesday at sold-out JPJ.
“We need to pick up our intensity and level of play,” Tobey said, “because it’s a good team we play next.”
That Virginia can be formidable, too, was evident in the opener. UVa returned two All-ACC players from a team that won 23 games last season: seniors Harris and Akil Mitchell. On a night when neither had a big game, the `Hoos rolled anyway.
“That’s the depth and that’s the balance that we need, I think, to be effective,” Bennett said.
UVa has four post players talented enough to start: the 6-8 Gill, the 6-8 Mitchell, the 6-ll Tobey and the 6-8 Atkins. Against JMU, they combined for 38 points and 19 rebounds.
“We can all do different things,” Atkins said. “It’s really hard for the other team to guard us.”
It was easier last season, when teams dared UVa point guard Jontel Evans to shoot. Evans, who was a senior, attempted only two 3-pointers in 2012-13. Opponents will have to respect the 3-point shooting of Brogdon and his backup, Perrantes.
“That spreads the floor,” Bennett said, “and then it lets those big guys go to work and get on the glass.”
As a freshman in 2011-12, Brogdon made 22 of 68 shots from beyond the arc. He expects to be a bigger threat from long range this season.
“I’ve changed my form to where it’s more consistent now,” Brogdon said, “and I’ve really focused on it, and I think it’s paid off a little bit.”
Even if Brogdon had missed all his shots Friday night, his teammates would have been thrilled to see him back on the court. That he played so well made the story even better.
“Malcolm is one of the most competitive guys that I know,” Harris said. “He dedicated so much of his time and worked so hard to get back to this point, and I think he’s improved a ton, even since the time he last played [at JPJ].
“I was really proud of him and just happy to see that. At the same time I always love playing with him, and I thought that he did a really nice job today.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: Bennett said the Cavaliers are leaning toward redshirting Devon Hall, a 6-5 freshman guard from Cape Henry Collegiate in Virginia Beach.
For now, at least, Bennett has settled on a nine-player rotation consisting of Brogdon, Harris, 6-6 sophomore Justin Anderson, Gill, Mitchell, Tobey, Atkins, Perrantes and 6-8 sophomore Evan Nolte. Hall is young for his class, and the coaches don’t want him to waste a year of eligibility in a season when he’s not likely to play much.
“I just think his future is bright. I do,” Bennett said. “I just told Devon, `It’s your decision, and I’m not saying you can’t work your way into the rotation, but right now here’s where I see it. And I want you to make that decision based on that.’
“You could make a case either way, but that’s the direction we’re going to go for now.”
Bennett’s assistants include Jason Williford, a former UVa standout. As a freshman in 1991-92, Williford played only 36 minutes for the Cavaliers, and he has said many times since then that he wishes he had redshirted that season.