Aug. 6, 2015
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the final play of the final practice of the summer for the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, Isaiah Wilkins leaped and blocked a 3-point attempt by Devon Hall at John Paul Jones Arena. That preserved a 16-14 victory for Wilkins and teammates Jack Salt and Joe Harris, who celebrated with gusto after they eliminated Hall, Darius Thompson and Mike Tobey.
“I won it for London,” a smiling Harris said after hitting three 3-pointers in the championship game of the three-on-three tournament that head coach Tony Bennett added this summer.
“You try to mix it up every year,” said Bennett, who liked a suggestion by new assistant coach Brad Soderberg that the Wahoos work three-on-three into their summer regimen.
“You get so many more shots, so many more touches, so much more decision-making [in three-on-three games],” Bennett said. “You’re just in multiple situations that are really good for your skill development.
“I grew up playing one-on-one and three-on-three. Sometimes it doesn’t get more complicated than that.”
Harris, who graduated from UVa in 2014, wasn’t the only former player in the men’s practice gym Wednesday. Also working out with the current team were Mustapha Farrakhan, Jontel Evans, Jerome Meyinsse and Mamadi Diane. Justin Anderson, now a rookie with the Dallas Mavericks, worked out with the `Hoos early in the summer.
“I think it’s awesome,” fifth-year senior Anthony Gill said, “just to have the guys that helped build this program come back.”
“I love it, man,” Harris said. “This is awesome. I wish I could have been doing this all summer. I think next year ideally I’ll be working out in Charlottesville a lot more than I did this time around. It was just so hectic with everything going on. The season finished late, I had summer league, and then after summer league I had to take some time off. It just didn’t work out for me to come out when all the guys were out here, except for this last week.”
Former players from such schools as North Carolina, Duke and Connecticut, Harris noted, regularly return to their alma maters to train in the summer.
“That’s as common a thing as you hear in the NBA,” Harris said. “Hopefully this starts to become more and more of a trend [at UVa].”
When summer school is in session, a Division I coaching staff can work with its players two hours per week. At UVa, those practices supplemented the players’ sessions with strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis.
Fifth-year senior guard Malcolm Brogdon was out of town for part of last month, playing for the USA Basketball team that competed in the Pan American Games, but the other Cavaliers were on Grounds and, Bennett said, made noticeable strides.
“I think this was a good summer,” Bennett said. “We were a little different this summer in our approach, and I think our guys got more situation skill work. And it’s always good for them to work with Coach Curtis.”
Wilkins said: “I think we got a lot stronger as a team. Credit to M.C. I also feel we got more used to playing with each other. I think the three-on-three [tournament] was really big, because you go out and work on your game.”
“I most definitely think we got better,” he said. “We focused on a lot on our offensive game this summer, playing three-on-three all summer, so we were working on game moves and really trying to understand how everyone plays. We’re learning about ourselves in this setting, just trying to get a feel for game-like situations.”
Bodies changed over the course of the summer. Freshman Jarred Reuter, a 6-8 forward who weighed 272 pounds when he arrived in June, is now around 250. The 6-7 Wilkins, who weighed about 195 when he enrolled at Virginia last summer, weighed in at 233 on Wednesday.
His goal coming into the summer? “I wanted to get a lot stronger, and I wanted to gain 10, 15 pounds,” Wilkins said.
Consider it done. “All credit to M.C.,” Wilkins said.
The 6-8 Gill, who’s listed at 230 pounds on the roster, reduced his body fat from “9-point-something” percent to around 7 percent, he said.
“I feel a lot more explosive and more agile,” Gill said.
In 2014-15, Gill averaged 11.6 points and a team-high 6.5 rebounds and made the All-ACC third team. In all, eight of UVa’s top 10 scorers from last season are back, including four seniors: Brogdon, Gill, the 7-0 Tobey and 6-8 forward Evan Nolte. But the two players who departed — the 6-6 Anderson (12.2 ppg), a third-team All-America, and 6-8 Darion Atkins, a defensive force — won’t be easily replaced.
“I want more from every guy that’s returning,” Bennett said in May.
His frontcourt options now include Reuter, who played in the powerful program at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. Moreover, two players who sat out last season, the 6-11 Salt and the 6-4 Thompson, are eligible for 2015-16.
Salt redshirted as a freshman last season. Thompson, a redshirt sophomore, was ineligible to play in 2014-15 under NCAA rules after transferring to UVa from Tennessee.
“They’re very nice parts of the future of this program,” Bennett said of Salt and Thompson. “I think they both really improved and made the most out of their redshirt years. I think all our guys have done that.”
Others who have redshirted at UVa in recent years, for various reasons, include Brogdon, Gill and Hall, a 6-5 guard who has three seasons of eligibility remaining. Even when they couldn’t play in games, their presence at practice helped their teammates improve, and Bennett expects that to be case with Austin Nichols too.
Nichols, a 6-9 forward, recently transferred to Virginia from Memphis, where he averaged 13.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.4 blocked shots as a sophomore last season. He’ll have two seasons of eligibility at UVa, starting in 2016-17.
“He’s a proven commodity,” Bennett said of Nichols. “You need that proven guy that has shown he can score some baskets and have success on the interior.”
The Cavaliers’ post players this season are Tobey, Gill, Nolte, Salt, Wilkins and Reuter. Of that group, Gill (25.3 minutes per game), Nolte (17.9) and Tobey (17.1) played the most in 2014-15. (Nolte played extensively at small forward late in the season.) Wilkins averaged only 9.4 minutes as a freshman last season, but look for his role to grow significantly in 2015-16.
“I think he’s really improved,” Bennett said. “He’s going to be hard to keep off the floor.”
Wilkins appeared in 28 of Virginia’s 34 games last season and posted modest averages of 1.6 points and 2.5 rebounds.
“I’m looking to really make a big jump coming into this year, so hopefully you’ll see progress,” he said.
Also impressive this summer was Tobey, who averaged 6.9 points and 5.1 rebounds as a junior. Tobey returned to Charlottesville in May to train under Curtis, and “this is the hardest and most disciplined and effort I’ve seen him put into a spring and summer,” Bennett said.
“This is his last year, and he’s working on owning that position.”
In 2013-14, Harris’ senior year, UVa swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen. With Harris rooting them on from afar, the Cavaliers repeated as ACC regular-season champions in 2014-15 and finished 30-4.
“I love seeing the success that the program has had, and to see them have an unbelievable season last year was awesome,” Harris said. “These are some of my best friends, and I just love seeing them do well.
“I wish I could have watched them a lot more than I did. I didn’t quite realize how busy I was going to be and how many games I would actually not be able to watch. Obviously I watched the highlights, and I would DVR [the game], but I was only able to watch a few of them live.”