Dec. 6, 2015
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Little more than three weeks into the season, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team already has played in Washington, D.C., Charleston, S.C., and Columbus, Ohio, and its 2015 travels aren’t over.
A trip to New York City comes next for 10th-ranked Virginia (7-1), which meets No. 20 West Virginia (7-0) at 7 p.m. Tuesday in a Jimmy V Classic game at Madison Square Garden.
“With such a historical place like that, it’s always special to go in there and be able to play where the greats have played,” UVA big man Anthony Gill said. “People like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, all those guys, they’ve played there, and it’s a part of history that we get to be a part of it.”
Before heading north, 10th-ranked Virginia treated fans at John Paul Jones Arena to an entertaining afternoon of hoops. Against a William and Mary team that opened the season last month with a 17-point victory over NC State — in Raleigh no less — the Cavaliers never trailed Saturday in a 67-52 victory before a near-capacity crowd at JPJ.
“I really admire how they play,” W&M coach Tony Shaver said. “I think Tony Bennett is one of the best coaches I’ve ever seen.”
His team’s preparation for the game impressed Bennett, who’s in his seventh year at UVA. He wasn’t happy with the Cavaliers’ defense against Ohio State, and neither were his players.
“I watched the guys come together defensively, because they knew they had to, and I said, `I’ll take that team into battle any time,’ ” Bennett told reporters Saturday afternoon.
“I was so pleased with what I saw, just how it played out in practice yesterday, and I thought they were ready from the opening tip, and that’s all I can ask.”
For the second straight game, redshirt sophomore Darius Thompson started at point guard in place of junior London Perrantes, who had an appendectomy last Sunday. Thompson impressed Tuesday night in Virginia’s 64-58 win at Ohio State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and he shined again Saturday.
“It’s great to have a backup point guard like that, that’s for sure,” Shaver said.
Thompson finished with 12 points, four steals, three rebounds and two assists in 36 minutes. The Wahoos struggled at times in their halfcourt offense, perhaps because of Perrantes’ absence, but they finished with 12 fast-break points while allowing none.
“Coach Bennett has really pushed us to get out in transition and get easier buckets and not try to play as far into the shot clock and try to make it easier for ourselves on offense,” said guard Malcolm Brogdon, who like Gill, the team’s other fifth-year senior, contributed 16 points Saturday.
There’s also, of course, the D.T. factor. The 6-4 Thompson, who sat out last season after transferring to Virginia from Tennessee, is an exceptional athlete who combines superior speed and quickness with terrific leaping ability.
If the Cavaliers are scoring more points in transition this season, No. 51 is a major reason why they’re so dangerous on the break.
“A lot of the time he leaks out when he’s not supposed to,” Brogdon said, smiling, “but it does contribute, because A.G. and these guys are rebounding really well for us this year, and we get the ball out, and Darius pushes no matter what. And sometimes we get highlight plays, but sometimes we just get the defense on their [heels], and then we can get early into offense.”
One of those highlight plays — a dunk destined for a glorious run on YouTube — came late in the game. Thompson stole the ball, took two dribbles and passed to Brogdon on the break. Brogdon bounced the ball back to Thompson, who soared for a vicious one-handed dunk that even a foul by 6-6 Daniel Dixon could not stop.
“As soon as Malcolm had the ball, I said, `If he passes it back to me, I’m dunking,’ ” Thompson told reporters.
On the bench and on the court, his teammates marveled at Thompson’s feat, their mouths agape in wonder.
“I think that’s the craziest dunk I’ve seen in person in a long time,” Gill said. “He’s so athletic, and he has the capability of doing that kind of stuff almost every play, so you just gotta look out for him and be careful.”
Senior forward Evan Nolte said: “He’s a special player in transition, and so it’s fun to watch.”
Thompson “brings a different dimension that way, and he slashes, as you saw today,” Bennett said. “Those are valuable buckets if they’re off of a turnover or you get a couple of easy ones if the defense isn’t back and set.”
In their halfcourt offense, Bennett said, the Cavaliers “were out of sync with our timing … We always talk about pace and timing in the offense, and I thought both were below average today. Some nice plays were made, but it was a so-so halfcourt man-to-man offensive effort. Even against the zone, we were just so-so.
“That’s why those open-court buckets are good.”
In all, Virginia forced 19 turnovers and turned those W&M errors into 20 points. That, to Shaver, was the difference Saturday.
“I understand a team of that quality makes you do some things that aren’t characteristic, but our decision-making as a ball club was very poor,” Shaver said. “I’m disappointed we didn’t play better. I think we can play better than we did. But they’re very talented.”
On an afternoon when Gill, Brogdon and Thompson combined for 44 points, their fellow starters, 6-5 sophomore Marial Shayok and 7-0 senior Mike Tobey, scored only two points between them. But sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins, Nolte and redshirt sophomore guard Devon Hall came off the bench to contribute eight, seven and six points, respectively.
“Our depth has helped us, and we’re going to need that, and different guys have to step up at different times,” Bennett said.
Perrantes, the MVP of the Charleston Classic, has not practiced since his surgery, but he warmed up with his teammates Saturday at JPJ and might be available Tuesday night in New York City.
“We’ll see,” Bennett said. “I’m hopeful. I don’t think there have been any setbacks.”
Thompson never has played at Madison Square Garden, and he said he expects it “to be a cool experience.”
The Cavaliers’ upperclassmen will attest to that. On March 28, 2014, Virginia met Michigan State at The Garden, where Tom Izzo’s team battled to a 61-59 victory in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen.
“We’ve played there before and we haven’t gotten a win there,” Gill said, “so I think going into this game, we’re really hungry, not only just to win at Madison Square Garden, but to continue to get better and be the best UVA team we can be.”
Tobey grew up in Monroe, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City.
“Going to Madison Square Garden is just always really cool,” he said, “and being from New York, that kind of makes it a little bit more special for me.”
After the Jimmy V Classic, Virginia will break for final exams and won’t play again until Dec. 19, when No. 8 Villanova visits JPJ for another marquee matchup. The coming layoff only adds to the significance of UVA’s date with the Mountaineers.
“Being able to play in a gym that has so much history behind it, [against] a team like West Virginia, your adrenaline’s going to be pumping,” Brogdon said. “It’s just going to be a great experience for us to play away and play a very good team.”