By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — He’s 23 years old and has been in college for how many years? Four? Five? Six?
“Forever,” Anthony Gill said. Then he flashed his trademark smile Wednesday morning in a Ritz-Carlton conference room.
“Not as long as Malcolm,” Gill said, glancing to his left, where University of Virginia teammate Malcolm Brogdon sat in front of a group of reporters.
“I feel like Malcolm’s been playing since Ralph Sampson was, back in the day. But, yeah, it does feel like I’ve been here for a long time. It’s been a fun experience. I’ve been through a lot of battles, a lot of wars, and I’m looking forward to this last year.”
In college football, fifth-year seniors are common. Not so in college basketball, but the Cavaliers have two, Brogdon and Gill, who rank among the nation’s best players.
At ACC Operation Basketball, Brogdon was named the conference’s preseason co-player of the year (along with North Carolina senior Marcus Paige) on Wednesday. Gill was voted onto the preseason All-ACC second team.
Each sat out the 2012-13 season at UVA: Brogdon while recovering from foot surgery, and Gill after transferring in from South Carolina.
“That year for me was big,” Gill, a native of High Point, told reporters Wednesday at the ACC’s annual media day for men’s hoops.
“It really helped me develop my offensive game. I didn’t really grow that much defensively that year, but offensively I was able to really understand who I was as a player and what I needed to do to score the ball and help my team.
“Off the court, I really grew in my faith, and in that way Coach [Ritchie] McKay and Coach [Brad] Soucie were big mentors for me. I’m sad to see that they’re both gone now” — McKay is head coach at Liberty, where his assistants include Soucie — “but I’m really happy for them. They were a big part of my life and helped me grow as a person into who I am to this day.”
The 6-8, 230-pound Gill is a person to whom others naturally gravitate, in part because he’s perpetually upbeat and refuses to take himself too seriously.
“It’s always nice to have a leader on the team that is not always serious, that can be personable, can laugh, can have fun,” said Brogdon, a 6-5 guard who was a second-team All-American in 2014-15. “And that’s A.G. He’s the goofiest.”
Gill said: “A lot of times people forget that this is a game. We take it so seriously a lot of the time … There’s certain times you have to be stern with [teammates] and let them know this is serious and we have to do this, but it’s also a game.
“That’s my goal, to lead this team and to make sure they’re having fun while they’re doing it.”
And that’s fine with head coach Tony Bennett.
“I think it’s a good message,” Bennett said. “You have to be able to enjoy it. What’s the line from The Shining? All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
Bennett recently read an interview with Gregg Popovich in which the San Antonio Spurs’ coach was asked what qualities he looks for in players.
“No. 1, he said, `I look for players with a sense of humor, that don’t take themselves too seriously, can make fun of themselves, enjoy it and have fun,’ ” Bennett told reporters. “I thought of Anthony right away, but I think that’s a good way to be, because even as coaches we have fun.”
Do not, however, mistake Gill’s playfulness for a lack of commitment. Like Brogdon, Gill is relentless on the court, whether he’s pursuing rebounds or driving to the basket or playing his part in the Cavaliers’ rugged Pack-Line defense.
“When we step in between the lines, it’s time to work,” said Brogdon, who, incidentally, is about three months younger than Gill.
“A.G.’s personality is aggressive and fierce, basketball-wise … And a lot of the time it’s me and him going at it in practice. We’re always on the opposite team, and we go at each other.”
Gill’s story is a familiar one to many UVA fans. At Charlotte Christian School, he was a class behind Akil Mitchell, who went on to have an outstanding career at Virginia. Gill signed with South Carolina as a Charlotte Christian senior and started 26 games for the Gamecocks in 2011-12, averaging 7.6 points and 4.7 rebounds.
South Carolina changed coaches after his freshman season, though, and Gill decided to transfer. He also considered Ohio State and North Carolina before choosing Virginia.
His transition from one Division I program to another was not seamless.
“Every school tells you that they play defense,” Gill said Wednesday, smiling, “but once you get here to UVA, you actually have to play defense.”
And that was not his forte early in his Virginia career. As a redshirt sophomore in 2013-14, Gill averaged 8.6 points and 4.0 rebounds and shot a team-high 58.7 percent from the floor. He averaged 19.8 minutes per game, but he would have played more had his defense consistently met Bennett’s standards.
In 2014-15, on a team that led the nation in scoring defense, Gill showed marked improvement at that end of the floor. In voting by ACC coaches, Gill was named to the league’s all-defensive team.
“To a lot of people, it came as a shock,” Gill said of his honor. “But I really worked hard for that. I wanted to be a great defender. Coach Bennett’s system, the first year I played in it, he would never have imagined that I would have been on that list.
“But I really worked hard on it. I want to be someone Coach Bennett can look at and say, `I know he’s going to play defense. I know he’s going to lock him up. He’s not going to struggle guarding this person.’ ”
Bennett said Gill has “definitely made strides, and he’s become more explosive and athletic, and he understands that’s going to help us win, and it’s going to help him. So he has definitely improved, and he still has some [room for improvement].”
An anthropology major, Gill is engaged to his high school sweetheart, Jenna Jamil, and their wedding is set for early next April, less than a week after the NCAA championship game.
Virginia entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed in 2013-14 and a No. 2 seed in 2014-15. Each season, though, Michigan State ended UVA’s postseason run. The Spartans ousted the Cavaliers in the Sweet Sixteen in 2014 and in the round of 32 last season.
Those games still motivate him, Gill said, but it’s not “so much the fact that Michigan State beat us, it’s the fact that we lost. I want to go as far as I can in the tournament. That’s what we all want to do: me and Malcolm, Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte, Caid Kirven. This is our last year, and we want to go far in the tournament.”
In the ACC preseason poll released Wednesday, Virginia was picked to finish second in the conference, behind UNC. The Cavaliers have won back-to-back ACC regular-season titles, finishing 30-7 overall in 2013-14 and 30-4 in 2015-16.
Virginia, ranked No. 6 in the preseason USA Today coaches’ poll, wants to take another step forward in 2015-16.
“Not to overshadow anything we did last year with the 30 wins, or anything like that, but we want to go further in the [NCAA] tournament,” Gill said. “It’s just one of the goals we have as a team.”
Their NCAA tourney disappointments have taught the `Hoos that there’s “no second chance,” Gill said. “We played Michigan State two years in a row, and both times they got an early lead on us, and that’s not what we want to have. We want to be able to have a team that’s jumping out on people, and not having a team that has to fight back from the deficit.”