By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the UVa men’s basketball team, the season officially starts Nov. 14 against JMU in Harrisonburg. By opening night, however, the Cavaliers will have tested themselves twice against Division I foes.
The first of Virginia’s two closed scrimmages was Saturday against Marquette at John Paul Jones Arena.
Marquette is in its first season under former Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski, who replaced Buzz Williams, now the head coach at Virginia Tech.
Bennett prefers not to disclose publicly details of the scrimmages, sessions that help coaches evaluate their teams, but he said the experience was positive for the Wahoos, No. 9 in the preseason Associated Press poll.
“Like in every scrimmage, you saw areas you liked and areas that you have to improve,” Bennett said after practice Monday at JPJ. “It was good to play against the quickness of Marquette. They’re real aggressive and quick, and they guard you hard. That made us be sound with the ball, or unsound, and it revealed it.
“I think going against their athleticism was good. They’re intense. They’re obviously adjusting to a new style, and you could see that.”
Against Marquette, everyone who played for Virginia “got quality minutes,” Bennett said.
Of his freshmen’s play, “I think that it mirrored practice, which is kind of what you’d expect,” Bennett said. “They all got to play and all had real good moments, where they showed some nice things, whether it was knocking down a shot, hustling, making some good plays, showing their athleticism. And then there were times where it was a little fast for them, because it was a pressure game. There was more pressure defensively, perhaps even more than what we’re used to going against in practice.
“With our young guys, you saw real good stretches, and then you saw there were areas they’ve got to work on. I think they realized maybe that people will exploit you if you’re out of position in a game setting, or if you reach a little bit or you rest off the ball, it usually ends up exposing a problem. When you’re in games and you’re looking at the scoreboard, you feel those breakdowns a little more than when it’s just practice.”
UNFORTUNATE TIMING: By the latter part of the 2013-14 season, Anthony Gill had established himself as the Cavaliers’ best low-post scorer. And so the ankle injury he suffered early in the second half of Virginia’s final game — a 61-59 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen — proved costly.
After limping off the court at Madison Square Garden, the 6-8, 230-pound Gill had his ankle retaped and soon returned to the game, but he was ineffective. Gill, who had scored at least 10 points in each of UVa’s previous six games, finished with three against the Spartans.
“I always say, `What if?’ ” Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon said last week at ACC Operation Basketball in Charlotte, N.C.
“If Anthony didn’t get hurt, we had a very good chance of winning that game, for sure. But he was injured, and it is what it is, and we still had a good chance of winning it. But Anthony is a great player, and he’s going to be really, really good this season.”
Gill, who sat out 2012-13 after transferring to UVa from South Carolina, averaged 8.6 points and 4.0 rebounds last season in about 20 minutes per game. He has two seasons of eligibility left.
“This year he’s really improved his defense,” Brogdon said. “He actually takes a lot of charges, and he’s really good at that, which I think is a lost art in the game, but offensively Anthony can score in almost any way. Midrange, faceup, back to the basket, left shoulder, right shoulder, he can really just score the ball and has a knack for that. But his physical presence for us this year will be something different.”
WEALTH OF OPTIONS: Even with Akil Mitchell’s graduation, UVa remains deep in the frontcourt. In addition to Gill, Virginia’s post players include 6-8 senior Darion Atkins, 7-0 junior Mike Tobey, 6-8 junior Evan Nolte, the 6-11 Salt and the 6-7 Wilkins.
“I think they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with this year,” Brogdon said, “and I think we’ll play through them.”
Tobey started 28 games as a sophomore. Late in the season, though, he often found himself on the bench at the end of close games, and he doesn’t want that to be the case again in 2014-15.
“The end of the game for me is the most important part of the game,” Tobey said.
That’s when a coach goes with players he believes can “get a defensive stop, get a rebound, and a lot of times last year I wasn’t the guy [Bennett] was most confident in,” Tobey said. “And I took that pretty personally this offseason to get to the point where not only am I confident in myself to be the guy that’s going to get a stop defensively, but also the coach is.”
Tobey finished 2013-14 with modest averages of 6.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocked shots. On offense, he’s exceptionally skilled for a big man, and his teammates don’t hesitate to remind him of his importance to the team.
“For sure, we get on Mike, but it’s all constructive criticism,” Brogdon said. “It’s not tearing him down. But we tell him, `This is what you have to do in order for us to be good,’ and he understands that, and he’s really worked on it this summer, and he’s going to show a lot of promise in the future.”
COMMON BOND: Like Brogdon, Wilkins starred for head coach Eddie Martin at Greater Atlanta Christian before enrolling at UVa.
Wilkins, whose stepfather is former NBA great Dominique Wilkins, was a freshman at GAC when Brogdon was a senior there, but this is the first time they’ve been teammates.
“I had actually never seen Isaiah play until he got here, and Isaiah shocked me,” Brogdon said. “I think it’s a testament to our high school coach, what he taught us and really prepared us for the college game.”
Wilkins’ “defensive qualities set him apart from other freshmen,” Brogdon said, as does the freshman’s basketball IQ.
“Isaiah knows how to screen and separate,”Brogdon said. “Isaiah knows how to hedge and show on ball screens. Isaiah knows how to block out. Isaiah does all the little things that are going to get him time on the floor, and I think that’s what’s going to separate him from a lot of freshmen in this league, the fact that he knows how to play the game the right way.”
At 6-7, Wilkins is shorter than UVa’s other post players, and he’s athletic enough to play on the perimeter. He’s also a confident jump-shooter with excellent range.
“I feel like that’s where I’m most comfortable, facing up in the midrange area,” Wilkins said.
At GAC, Wilkins said, “I had the freedom to float around, but I usually ended up on the post, because I was so much taller than the other guys, where I could just turn and hook or spin or get a dunk or something like that.”
He knows he can expect more resistance around the basket at the Division I level, and so he’s paying close attention in workouts with Atkins, Tobey, Gill and Mark Vershaw, a graduate manager who started at center on Wisconsin’s Final Four team in 2000.
“I’m watching those guys and the moves that they make, back to the basket, and hopefully I’ll be able to incorporate some of that into my game as I go on,” Wilkins said.
He’s already transformed his body through workouts with Mike Curtis, UVa’s strength and conditioning coach for basketball. When Wilkins arrived at Virginia in June, he said, he weighed “maybe 200 pounds.” He’s now around 225.
“Good weight,” Wilkins said. “It’s all Coach Curtis. No question about it.”
RISING STAR: With the addition of Louisville, the ACC has four active men’s basketball coaches in the Hall of Fame: Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Louisville’s Rick Pitino.
Bennett, the reigning ACC coach of the year, is only 45. Brogdon believes Bennett will be a coaching legend one day, too.
“He’s as good as they come,” Brogdon said.
In three seasons at Washington State, Bennett went 69-33, with two trips to the NCAA tournament and one to the NIT. At UVa, his record in five seasons is 106-60, with two appearances in the NCAAs.
Bennett “treats his players and his staff with the utmost respect,” Brogdon said, “and he just recruits a certain brand of guys that are willing to buy in.
“He chews people out as much as any coach does, I think. But he doesn’t cuss. He doesn’t swear, and that’s the level of respect that I think separates him from a lot of coaches.”
Worse than being cussed out, Brogdon said, is letting down Bennett.
“When you know, `Man, Coach is disappointed in me,’ that’s the worst feeling you can have, really,” Brogdon said.
BACK IN THE FOLD: Bennett lost a staff member during the summer when Marlon Stewart, who assisted with video and scouting in 2012-13 and 2013-14, left to become director of basketball operations at Montana.
Stewart’s departure cleared the way for Vic Sfera’s return to UVa, where Sfera had worked for Bennett in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Sfera, who spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach at Northern Arizona University, works with technology and scouting at Virginia.
“Obviously he’s so knowledgeable with the film breakdown and computer stuff,” Bennett said, “but he’s going to be helping out a lot with coordinating recruiting, too. He was on the road [recruiting for NAU], and he’s very knowledgeable. His experience is invaluable.
“Like a lot of our guys, he’s got a bright future in this game. He was one of the youngest guys last year to be a Division I [assistant] coach on the floor. And I told him, `Take stock of what you’re seeing here while you’re here. Bring some of the things you learned from your other program, and let’s see if we can find a way to improve our program from your knowledge.’ ”