By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — More than three weeks will pass before the UVa men’s basketball team plays at John Paul Jones Arena again, Dec. 18 against Cleveland State. The Cavaliers figure to learn much about themselves between now and then.
Before breaking for final exams, eighth-ranked Virginia (5-0) will play in Brooklyn, N.Y., against La Salle (4-0) and then Rutgers (2-2) or Vanderbilt (4-0) in the Barclays Center Classic; in College Park, Md., against longtime rival Maryland (5-0) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge; and in Richmond, against No. 14 VCU (4-1), which won at JPJ last season.
“The competition is going to rise,” UVa swingman Marial Shayok said Tuesday night at JPJ.
The Wahoos encountered little resistance in their last game before the trip to New York City. Virginia obliterated Tennessee State 79-36 on Tuesday night to run its winning streak at JPJ to 15 games.
During one stretch that spanned both halves, the `Hoos outscored the Tigers 32-0.
“They are extremely good,” Tennessee State coach Dana Ford said. “Unbelievably disciplined, unbelievably tough, and they don’t beat themselves. I’m not going to say they’re going to go to the Final Four, because it’s really hard to do, but that is definitely the best team we will play this year, and probably in the next four or five years.”
On a night when starting guards Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes were a combined 1 for 8 from the floor, the Cavaliers didn’t need big games from them. Not with juniors Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey and Justin Anderson in fine form.
The 6-8 Gill was 6 for 6 from the floor and finished with 16 points, nine rebounds, two assists, two blocked shots and one steal in only 19 minutes.
Tobey, a 7-0 center whose previous career high in rebounds was nine, posted his first double-double as a Cavalier (13 points, 16 boards).
“He was grabbing everything today,” said Shayok, a 6-5 freshman.
The 6-6 Anderson made all seven of his field-goal attempts, including five from beyond the arc, and finished with a game-high 20 points.
“That was good, because Justin had his feet set [for] good rhythm shots, and that loosened up the zone a little bit,” UVa head coach Tony Bennett said.
Seven minutes into the second half, Anderson had more points (20) than the Tigers (17). As well as he shot in Virginia’s first four games — 10 for 17 from 3-point range — the 6-6 swingman was even hotter against Tennessee State (2-3). Anderson’s outburst included a four-point play early in the first half.
Virginia, sluggish early in its previous game, a 59-42 victory over George Washington, started well Tuesday night and rarely let up against an overmatched opponent.
“We did take care of business off the jump,” Anderson said, “and I think we came out really strong.”
The Tigers “gave us a different challenge than we’ve seen this year,” Anderson said, “as far as their athleticism, as far as their ability to catch and shoot really fast, which made us be a little bit more disciplined on getting to shooters, closing out higher, being smarter with our ball movement and [making] extra passes, things like that. So they challenged us to do something different, but I think we did a great job responding and executing and getting the job done early.”
Shayok said: “It was time for us to show what we’ve been working on, especially our younger guys, staying poised and running offense and playing good defense. Even though the score was kind of a blowout, you just keep playing hard.”
Reserves played most of the second half for Virginia, including walk-ons Caid Kirven, Jeff Jones, Maleek Frazier and Rob Vozenilek, a group known around the program as the Green Machine, in honor of the jerseys they often wear in practice.
Kirven, Jones and Vozenilek scored Tuesday night, and Kirven and Jones had two offensive boards apiece to help UVa outrebound Tennessee State 49-22.
“Those guys, they really work to get us better,” Bennett said. “At the end, for them to get four or five quality minutes, where they play hard, that means the world to me, because of their sacrifice. So that part was good. And then to get some of the younger guys some minutes [was good, too].”
Those players include freshman B.J. Stith, who was 2 for 3 from the floor and scored four points. The points were the first as a Wahoo for Stith, whose father, Bryant, is UVa’s all-time leading scorer.
Stith’s first basket, off a pass from junior forward Evan Nolte, came with 9:05 remaining.
“It was great for a split-second,” Stith said, smiling. “Then I realized I gotta get back to the Pack-Line [defense].”
Stith has been the 11th man in Bennett’s rotation this season, and that’s meant little playing time for the 6-5 guard.
“That can fluctuate back and forth,” Bennett said, “and I told him in practice, `Be real aggressive. Explore your game a little bit. Don’t worry about missing shots. Don’t worry about turnovers.’
“Sometimes I’ll put some of our young guys over on the scout team, because I remember Coach [Bo] Ryan would do that at Wisconsin. I always thought that was really good, where you’d let them be real aggressive. And I’ve done that with our guys at times, because I think they can find their games [that way].
“Sometimes there are guys that are young that aren’t getting as many minutes, in practice they just play so cautious and so conservative, and I don’t think that’s right for those guys.”
Stith said: “Whatever Coach Bennett says, I’m up for it. I love the challenge.”
On a deep, talented team, Stith isn’t the only one battling for playing time. After starting the first two games this season, Tobey has come off the bench in the past three, with Gill and 6-8 senior Darion Atkins getting the call in the frontcourt. But Tobey made the most of 18 minutes Tuesday night.
“I don’t get too much into stats,” Bennett said, “but an important area for us is defensive rebounding, and I do think, judging by the first few games we’ve played, that Mike has improved in that, and he’s going after the ball. You can see he’s stronger. We’re going to need that with the size we’ll be playing against throughout the year.”
Tobey is listed at 253 pounds, and that’s about what he weighed in 2013-14, too. But he’s stronger this season, and his rebounding numbers reflect that.
After averaging 2.9 boards per game as a freshman and 3.8 as a sophomore, Tobey came into the Tennessee State averaging 5.8. He’s up to 7.8 per game now.
“It was really a focus for me in the offseason to work on my rebounding,” Tobey said. “I think before this game I was doing a little better than I had been in the last two years, but I wanted to improve more, because I feel like that’s important for our team.”
In 2013-14, when the `Hoos won 30 games and swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles, then-senior Akil Mitchell averaged a team-high seven rebounds.
“I think Akil stole all of those last year, so there weren’t any out there for [Tobey],” Bennett said, smiling.
This will be UVa’s second trip to New York City in about eight months. The Cavaliers ended last season at Madison Square Garden, where they lost to Michigan State in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen. The Barclays Center is home to the city’s other NBA team, the Brooklyn Nets.
“I hear it’s one of the most beautiful facilities,” Bennett said. “It’s always exciting when you go to these tournaments to play in real nice venues, and an opportunity again for us to go against some quality competition and keep getting better.”
Gill said the team is looking forward to “being in a new environment. We’ve been playing a lot of games here at home. Just going on the road in a neutral setting and trying to bring our own energy is going to be interesting.”
As a senior at Blair Academy in New Jersey, Shayok played in an all-star game at the Barclays Center.
“It was quite an experience,” he said, “one of the best experiences ever. It was real cool playing in an NBA stadium with a lot of celebrities and NBA players there.”
Tobey, also a Blair Academy graduate, is from Monroe, N.Y., and he’ll have a large cheering section at the Barclays Center on Friday and Saturday nights.
“It’s going to be real close [to home] or me, so I’m excited,” Tobey said.
Anderson is pumped too, in part because of the Barclays Center’s ties to his favorite hip-hop artist, Jay Z. But Virginia’s game against La Salle is scheduled to start at 9:30 p.m. Friday. That means Anderson won’t be able to watch UVa’s football game against Virginia Tech that night.
He’s confident his favorite football team will prevail in Blacksburg.
“I told you, those guys, they’re built different,” Anderson said. “Having class with them, building the relationships that I have with a lot of those guys, they’re wired different. They’re a tough group of guys, and I’m so proud of what they’re able to accomplish right now.”