Dec. 20, 2013

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Anthony Gill started at forward for South Carolina on March 8, 2012, in the SEC men’s basketball tournament. Twenty months passed before he played in another college game, so it’s easy for Gill, now a redshirt sophomore at the University of Virginia, to keep his new team’s break for final exams in perspective.

“It’s not quite as long as the year-and-a-half I sat out,” Gill said with a smile Thursday at John Paul Jones Arena, “but it’s a pretty long time to be sitting. But it’s good that we get rest.”

The Cavaliers haven’t played since Dec. 7, when they lost 75-72 at Green Bay. The break ends Saturday at 4 p.m., when UVa (7-3) hosts Northern Iowa (5-5). Two nights later, also at JPJ, Virginia takes on Norfolk State (8-4).

Look for the 6-8, 230-pound Gill, who has started six games this season, to play a prominent role in each game. He’s third on the team in scoring (10.1 ppg) and fourth in rebounding (4.4). His field-goal percentage (68.4) is far and away the best of head coach Tony Bennett’s regulars. It all bodes well for a guy who says he’s “not anywhere close to” the player he expects to be at UVa.

Associate head coach Ritchie McKay agreed with Gill’s self-evaluation.

“Anthony’s still shaking off the rust,” McKay said. “I think whenever you sit out a year, it’s almost like a junior-college player who usually has a half-a-year transition period. I think he’s still going through that, especially with the way we defend. I don’t think there are many programs that have as intricate of a defensive system as we do. So I think he’s got a learning curve that he’s growing into, and when he gets it, he’s going to be really special.”

Practices are different for Gill this season. In 2012-13, which he had to sit out as a transfer, nobody paid much attention if he missed a defensive assignment or threw the ball away.

“There’s a lot more pressure [now],” Gill said. “Last year I played with a lot more freedom, because Coach Bennett really wasn’t focusing on me too much, because I was on the scout team.

“I really never got to work on the defense last year, so this year they’re really pushing defense, trying to get me to understand the system that he wants, and I really want to understand it.”

McKay said: “When you’re on the scout team, you’re trying to get buckets, and that’s how he’s wired. So he played a great role on the scout team last year, but you’re certainly not as accountable for your defensive performance. I think he’s seen the demand of it this year, and like most of our first-years, he’s in that I’m-still-learning-this-and-have-gotta-get-confident mode.”

Gill has been splitting time in the frontcourt with 6-8 senior Akil Mitchell, 6-8 junior Darion Atkins and 6-11 sophomore Mike Tobey. Mitchell, a third-team All-ACC selection last season, is averaging 23.4 minutes per game, Gill 19.8, Tobey 16.7 and Atkins 15.5. (Evan Nolte, a 6-8 sophomore, has been used primarily at small forward this season.)

“What keeps me off the court is my defense,” Gill said, “so I’ve really got to focus on that. Coach Bennett really pushes that, and that’s what we believe here, and I believe it too. I trust Coach Bennett 100 percent on that.”

As a freshman at South Carolina, Gill hit 45.3 percent of his field-goal attempts — not terrible, but nothing like his sharpshooting this season. So what gives?

“I really worked on my offensive game last year,” Gill said. “So this year I’m just trying to get my defensive game to be right up there with my offensive game.”

As impressive as he’s been offensively, Gill can do more. The coaching staff wants Gill to aggressively seek more opportunities to score, McKay said, and his shooting range is likely to expand as he grows more comfortable in the offense.

At South Carolina, Gill made 11 of 28 shots from 3-point range in 2011-12. He has yet to attempt a 3-pointer as a Cavalier, and most of his baskets have come in the paint or near the basket.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see him grow into a Mike Scott role,” McKay said, referring to the former UVa star who now plays for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.

Gill, whose hometown is High Point, N.C., attended Charlotte Christian School, where he was a class behind Mitchell. They were reunited at UVa in June 2012, but Gill and Mitchell didn’t play together in a college game until Nov. 8 of this year, in a season-opener against James Madison University at JPJ.

In Virginia’s 61-41 rout of JMU, Gill went 5 for 5 from the floor and 3 for 5 from the line. His time on the sideline last season, Gill said, made him appreciate basketball more.

“The first game I played [for UVa], I knew that I’d been missing something in my life, and it was great to be out there,” Gill said. “It was great to be a part of a team again. Even though I was on the team last year, there’s just a difference with actually being able to play with the team, going through the battles with the team. It’s definitely an emotional roller coaster, but I love it.”

UVa will try to end a two-game losing streak Saturday. Three nights before falling at Green Bay, Virginia lost 48-38 to Wisconsin in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game at JPJ.

The Badgers, ranked No. 4 in the latest Associated Press Poll, are 12-0. Green Bay is 7-3, and the other team to defeat Virginia this season, VCU, is 9-3.

“I don’t know if I’d say we’ve just laid an egg in any of those games,” Bennett said Monday. “We were incomplete.”

Nine players are averaging at least 10.9 minutes apiece for Virginia: Mitchell, Gill, Tobey, Atkins, Nolte, Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson and London Perrantes. Bennett experimented with different combinations during the exam break, occasionally using the 6-6 Anderson at power forward.

“I think the depth and the balance is a positive, but it sometimes can be a challenge,” Bennett said. “I feel like there’s something better out there for us, and we’ve got to [find] it.”

The Wahoos have played well “in stretches, but we have some lapses,” Bennett said. “Some of it is personnel, and we gotta keep looking at it. Whatever it is, I’m still searching, I guess, and I don’t feel 100-percent comfortable that we’ve found it.”

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