Feb. 10, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — About 15 minutes before the start of practice Monday afternoon, Justin Anderson walked out of the tunnel and took a seat in the lower bowl of John Paul Jones Arena, at which point several teammates came over to greet him.

No practice for Anderson?

“Tomorrow,” he said, smiling.

As much as UVa basketball fans might wish otherwise, Anderson was, of course, kidding. Dr. Bobby Chhabra operated Sunday to repair the fractured little finger on Anderson’s left hand, which was heavily wrapped Monday, and the 6-6 junior swingman is expected to be sidelined four to six weeks.

“It’s heartbreaking to see something like that happen to a guy who’s doing really well, when our team’s doing really well,” Evan Nolte said after practice Monday.

Nolte, a 6-8 junior, is among the players whose roles are likely to significantly grow in Anderson’s absence, along with 6-5 freshman Marial Shayok and 6-5 redshirt freshman Devon Hall. B.J. Stith, a 6-5 freshman who’s played the least of the Cavaliers’ scholarship players, also could see more time with Anderson out.

“We aren’t going to be exactly the same,” Tony Bennett said Monday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference. “We don’t have a replica to replace Justin, but other guys will come in and we’ll have to look a little different in different ways and figure this out as we go.”

Second-ranked Virginia has eight regular-season games remaining, the last of which is March 7 at Louisville. The ACC tournament begins three days later in Greensboro, N.C.

“We don’t exactly know if it’s going to be closer to four or six [weeks],” Bennett said of Anderson’s absence. “That all is going to depend on how his recovery goes. Probably the next two to three weeks we’ll get a feel for that. But everything was positive in the surgery.

“He’ll just get to work [when the doctors clear him]. He’s got such a positive outlook, and certainly we’ll welcome him back with open arms when that time is right.”

An explosive leaper known for his spectacular dunks and blocked shots, the left-handed Anderson was the ACC’s sixth man of the year in 2013-14, when the Wahoos swept the conference’s regular-season and tournament titles. He moved into a starting role this season and established himself as an ACC-player-of-the-year candidate.

At 13.4 ppg, Anderson is the second-leading scorer for Virginia (21-1, 9-1), which plays ACC rival NC State (14-10, 5-6) in Raleigh at 8 p.m. Wednesday. He leads the league in 3-point field-goal percentage (48.4) and has made a team-best 46 treys.

Anderson is tied for the team lead in steals (16), ranks third in assists (44) and blocks (12), and fourth in rebounds (4.3 per game).

His injury occurred Saturday night at JPJ when, on a shot by Anderson, his hand hit the hand of Louisville center Mangok Mathiang with about two minutes remaining in the first half. Anderson left the game briefly to have his finger examined by Ethan Saliba, Virginia’s head athletic trainer, then re-entered and played the final 33 seconds of the half.

At halftime, though, it became clear the injury adversely affected Anderson’s ability to handle the ball, and Saliba ruled him out for the rest of the game. Bennett turned to Nolte, who played 16 minutes in the second half and hit a key 3-pointer that helped the Cavaliers secure a 52-47 victory.

For the season, Nolte is averaging only 2.3 points per game and shooting 21.6 from 3-point range. But he’s a steadying presence on the floor whose play in last year’s NCAA tournament helped the `Hoos reach the Sweet Sixteen.

Nolte came off the bench to score eight points against Coastal Carolina and six against Memphis in Virginia’s first two games in the NCAA tourney.

“I’m just trying to be the best I can,” Nolte said, “and be aggressive, kind of like I was in the tournament, and not turn it over.”

Shayok has played the most of any UVa freshman this season. But after a stretch in which he logged at least 14 minutes in seven straight games, he’s played seven, eight and four, respectively. Moreover, Shayok (3.9 ppg) hasn’t scored since Jan. 22, when Virginia hammered Georgia Tech 57-28 at JPJ. But he’s a long, athletic defender who’s shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, and he’s played well in many of the Cavaliers’ wins.

Hall has played more than seven minutes only once since UVa began ACC play last month, and he didn’t get in against North Carolina on Feb. 2 or against Louisville on Saturday night.

“It’s always difficult not being able to play,” Hall said Monday, “but I’ve just been doing what I can to help the team on the scout team and playing as hard as I could, trying to stay ready.”

Anderson’s injury is “obviously not the greatest thing for us,” Hall said, “but we’ve got guys ready to go, like me, Marial and Evan and B.J. It’s just a matter of us staying ready, and we will be ready when the time comes.”

Nolte, who played some small forward in 2013-14, returned to his natural position as a perimeter-oriented power forward — also known as a “stretch-4” — before this season. But the Cavaliers, with big men such as Darion Atkins, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey, have no shortage of frontcourt options, and Nolte recently began practicing at small forward again.

“For me, going from the post to the wing, one of my weaknesses is ballhandling,” Nolte said. “I think I’ve gotten a lot better at it, but it’s still one of my weaknesses. And so making sure I don’t turn it over is huge for me, but I still want to be aggressive and take shots when I have them.”

What he’s not doing, Nolte said, is trying to duplicate Anderson’s high-wire act.

“I don’t think any of us are,” Nolte said. “Marial, Devon and I, we’re just trying to play our game and help the team. That’s what we wanted to do before. But now that there’s a lot more playing time with Justin out, we’re just going to have to step up and do what we’ve been ready for and not overthink things.”

Until Anderson got hurt, the Cavaliers had stayed remarkably healthy for more than one-and-a-half seasons, and Bennett understands injuries are part of the game. Still, he knows Anderson is a significant loss.

During a workout on the treadmill Monday morning, perhaps in response to Anderson’s injury, Bennett said, “I just took the incline up a little higher and maybe went a little faster — not a whole lot, I can’t handle much — but I said, `All right, the incline just got a little steeper. Let’s call it what it is.’ ”

When a team loses a player of Anderson’s caliber, Bennett said, “you know it’s going to be a little stiffer or steeper challenge … But we have good depth, and we have to rely on that.”

The ever-exuberant Anderson stood on the sideline for much of practice Monday afternoon, encouraging the other Cavaliers. Afterward he shot baskets — right-handed — with his brother, Edward, while maintaining a steady stream of banter.

Anderson’s teammates know they can count on his support from the bench while he’s out.

“He’ll be just as active as he is on the court, maybe more,” Hall said, smiling. “He’s crazy enough.”

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