By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For Devon Hall, the long wait ends Friday night.
Hall, a 6-5 guard from Virginia Beach, is likely to start for the UVa men’s basketball team in its season-opener against JMU in Harrisonburg. But even if Hall comes off the bench at the Convocation Center, the experience is one he’ll savor.
“I’m excited, man. I cannot wait to play,” Hall said after practice Wednesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena. “Just to be able to get back on the court is great for me. Just being able to compete. That’s my thing. Being able to compete is the biggest thing for me.”
Hall arrived at UVa in June 2013, half of a recruiting class that also included point guard London Perrantes. The Cavaliers had multiple options on the perimeter in 2013-14, and Hall chose to redshirt and develop his body and his game.
Inside the program, all agree that it was time well spent for Hall, a graduate of Cape Henry Collegiate.
“He’s just gotten so much better,” Gill said of Hall. “His confidence has grown a lot since he got here. That year off really helped him out a lot. His shot’s gotten a lot better. The way he just runs the team and just demands excellence out of us every day is good for us, and I think he’s going to help this team out a lot.”
The Cavaliers, coming off a season in which they won 30 games, captured the ACC title and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen, meet the Dukes at 7 o’clock Friday. Both teams will be short-handed.
For UVa, Perrantes and junior forward Evan Nolte must sit out the opener for violating team rules in the summer. Both will be eligible to play Sunday night against Norfolk State at JPJ.
For JMU, junior guard Andre Nation will miss the first five games of the season, and sophomore forward Tom Vodanovich the first two, for their involvement in an off-campus altercation with each other.
Perrantes, who started 33 games last season, also was suspended for each of the Wahoos’ closed scrimmages this month, and Hall worked extensively at the point in his friend’s absence.
Still, Hall knows Friday night will be different. He hasn’t played in an official game since March 1, 2013, when Cape Henry Collegiate lost to Bishop O’Connell in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association, Division I state semifinals.
“Tough game,” Hall recalled.
Sitting out last season was tough for him, too, but Hall knows he’s better for having done so. Training sessions with Mike Curtis, UVa’s strength and conditioning coach for basketball, reshaped Hall’s body — he’s now a lean 203 pounds — and improved his athleticism and outside shot.
“I look at myself last year and I look at myself this year, and it’s just a complete difference,” said Hall, whose brother, Mark, is a redshirt sophomore on Virginia’s football team. “I just feel so much better, more confident about myself.”
Brogdon, who can play both guard positions, redshirted in 2012-13 while recovering from foot surgery. He talked to Hall about making the most of the year away from competition.
“I tried to not overload him, because I know a lot of people were telling him stuff, but I told him to watch as much film as he could, and if there anything he wanted to get better at, to break it back down as simple as possible and build on it,” Brogdon said.
“For example, with your shot, go back to mechanics and build on it, because that’s what I did. Just get as much repetition as you can and keep adding things to your repertoire.”
Brogdon, a 6-5 redshirt junior, enters the season as an All-America candidate, and he heads a large group of veterans at Virginia. Others include the 6-2 Perrantes, 6-8 senior Darion Atkins, 7-0 junior Mike Tobey, 6-6 junior Justin Anderson, the 6-8 Nolte and the 6-8 Gill, who like Brogdon is a redshirt junior.
“I think all the guys have taken a step and have improved in the offseason, and now we get to test it and see where that’s at,” head coach Tony Bennett said Monday.
UVa’s newcomers this season include four freshmen: 6-11 Jack Salt, 6-5 Marial Shayok, 6-5 B.J. Stith and 6-7 Isaiah Wilkins. Shayok has earned a spot in the backcourt rotation, but at least one of his classmates might redshirt, as Hall did in 2013-14.
The Dukes finished 11-20 last season, their sixth under head coach Matt Brady. For Virginia, associate head coach Ritchie McKay prepared the scouting report on JMU. The `Hoos, who defeated the Dukes 61-41 last season, lead the series 9-0.
“They’re a little different, and we’re a little different,” McKay said. “Because they don’t have a couple of their players, it’s hard to say what they’ll emphasize or where they think they might be able to exploit our defense.
“There’s always that element of the unknown in the beginning, but our hope is that with the returners that we do have, they’re used to the unexpected.”
The season-opener is “always the most unsettling game,” McKay said. “I remember as a head coach I used to hate first games, because I didn’t know what to expect from not only our team but from the opponent. There’ll be a little trepidation there, and I’m sure it’ll be rocking in Harrisonburg. But it’s a great challenge, a great test for us early.”
A packed house is expected at the 6,426-seat Convocation Center, where UVa hasn’t played since Dec. 1, 1982. This will be the second time in three seasons Virginia has opened away from JPJ. The `Hoos lost at George Mason on Nov. 9, 2012.
“Not a lot of people are doing that, but we thought, let’s test ourselves right away and see what we’ve got,” said Bennett, whose team meets VCU in Richmond on Dec. 6.
“If you’re going to be a quality ball club, you have to be able to [play] in those settings.”
At the Convocation Center, his team will be thrust into a “great atmosphere, of course, and it’s going to certainly be a terrific challenge, and you’re going to have to bring a level of consistent play in that setting,” Bennett said.
“Again, it’ll test us, and we’re going to learn something from that game, without a doubt, and then bang, we turn around and there’s one on Sunday, one on Tuesday.”
After opening at JMU, Virginia will play its next four games at home: Sunday night against Norfolk State, Tuesday night against South Carolina State, Nov. 21 against George Washington and Nov. 25 against Tennessee State.
The Cavaliers’ ranking in the preseason Associated Press poll, No. 9, is their highest since 1982-83. But they struggled at times in their scrimmages, especially last weekend against Georgetown, and the `Hoos know they’ve not invincible.
“I think what it showed us is that if we’re not really right and disciplined on both ends of the floor, we are vulnerable,” Bennett said, “and I know that’s a message that every coach talks about, but it’s true, and I think that shows up.
“We’re a different team than last year, so I certainly accept that and acknowledge that. And we’re different obviously without Evan and London.
“I thought there were some lapses. The consistency that you hope for was fleeting in our last scrimmage, so that’s the challenge … But there’s bright spots. Guys can do things. There’s certainly that, too.”
Bennett is about to start his sixth season at UVa, where his record is 106-60, with two trips to the NCAA tournament and one appearance in the NIT. Despite his success, he’s been anything but complacent during the preseason.
“If anything he’s picked up his intensity,” Brogdon said. “He’s going at us harder. He’s pushing us harder. He understands that we have a target on our back, but at the same time he understands we have so much to work on and have to get so much better to accomplish the things we want to accomplish.”