By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In its final game before the holiday break, fifth-ranked Virginia (9-1) hosts California (9-2) at John Paul Jones Arena at 9 p.m. Tuesday.
About three dozen NBA scouts have requested seating at the late show, the first meeting between these schools in men’s basketball. The scouts are most interested in Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, Cal freshmen who could be 2016 lottery picks, but they’ll also be checking out the Golden Bears’ point guard, Tyrone Wallace, a 6-5 senior who’s averaging 16.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game.
There’s less buzz in NBA circles about UVA’s best player, All-American guard Malcolm Brogdon. A chiseled 6-5, 215-pound fifth-year senior, Brogdon is averaging 17.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists for a team that has won eight consecutive games.
For all his college accomplishments, though, Brogdon is rarely listed on 2016 mock drafts.
“I wish I had an answer for that, but like with anything, I think beauty’s in the eye of the beholder,” Virginia associate head coach Ron Sanchez said at JPJ. “Obviously, Malcolm in my opinion is one of the premier college basketball players right now. His level of efficiency and what he has done for this team as far as help us winning speak volumes about him and his ability.”
Often, however, the longer a player remains in college, the less appeal he holds for NBA teams. They’re seeking prospects who have significant room to grow as players, not finished products.
“But at the same time,” Sanchez said, “I think Malcolm will have his chance, and he’ll have an opportunity to prove it at the right time, and I think he’ll do a great job when that opportunity presents itself.”
Virginia’s head coach, Tony Bennett, is a former NBA guard. Asked what advice Bennett has given him, Brogdon said, “It’s about work ethic and taking care of your body and winning games at the college level. And as long as you keep doing that and you keep your right perspective and stay humble and work hard, you’re going to be OK.”
Brogdon returned to UVA in 2015-16 in part to complete work on his master’s degree in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, but also to raise his NBA stock. He’s not considered a prototypical NBA shooting guard, and he knew he needed to become more consistent from 3-point range.
“I think that’s a big one for me,” Brogdon said. “And then just continue to win. I think that’s the overall thing that helps you be successful and get to that level.”
As a redshirt junior in 2014-15, Brogdon shot 34.4 percent from 3-point range. He’s up to 40 percent this season, and his on-court contributions and leadership have helped the Cavaliers continue to churn out victories.
After winning 30 games in 2013-14 and again in 2014-15, the Wahoos have stumbled only once this season, losing at George Washington on Nov. 16. GW is ranked No. 20 in the latest Associated Press poll.
Virginia is coming off an 86-75 win over then-No. 12 Villanova at JPJ. That followed a 70-54 victory over then-No. 14 West Virginia at Madison Square Garden.
The Bears, in their second season under former Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin, rose to No. 14 in the AP poll last month before falling out after losses to San Diego State and Richmond. The Cavaliers know they’re in for a major test Wednesday night.
“Cal is very gifted,” Sanchez said. “They have two potential quote-unquote `one-and-done guys’ in Brown and Ivan Rabb. They have another McDonald’s All-American on that roster, [6-6 junior] Jabari Bird, who I think is really coming on strong. The senior leadership at the point guard spot, by Wallace, is phenomenal. He’s pretty complete. He’s tall. He’s long. He can shoot it. I think it’s a very, very talented team.”
Sanchez said the Bears resemble Martin’s teams at Tennessee “in their level of physical talent. The guards are really complete and athletic and long, and in the interior they’re very good as well.”
The 6-7, 225-pound Brown, who plays both forward spots, averages 13.9 points and 5.4 rebounds. Rabb, who’s listed at 6-11, 220 pounds, averages 12.6 points and 8.5 boards.
“He’s got a left-hand, right-hand hook, a very soft touch around the basket, and he’s a very, very good athlete,” Sanchez said of Rabb.
As Tennessee’s coach, Martin faced Virginia twice. In 2012-13, the `Hoos edged the Volunteers 46-38 at JPJ. In the rematch in Knoxville, Tennessee crushed UVA 87-52 on Dec. 30, 2013, a game Darius Thompson laughingly refers to as “the beatdown.”
Thompson was a freshman guard at Tennessee in 2013-14. He transferred to Virginia that spring after Martin left for Cal.
“Can’t wait to play him,” Thompson said of Martin. “I haven’t talked to him for a while, so it’s going to be good again to talk to him before the game and after the game.”
Had Martin remained at Tennessee, Thompson would have done the same. But when Martin left for Berkeley, Thompson said, “I didn’t think about going to Cal. He didn’t want to take players from Tennessee and take them to Cal, because he didn’t feel like that was the right thing to do.”
The Cavaliers are thrilled to have Thompson, a 6-4 redshirt sophomore whose dunks have made him a fan favorite. He’s started six games and is averaging 8.6 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists, and he leads the team with 11 steals.
Most impressive, perhaps, Thompson is shooting 58.9 percent from the floor, including 45 percent from 3-point range. At Tennessee, Thompson’s shooting percentages were significantly lower: 38.1 from the floor and 19.5 from 3-point range.
“He’s a talented player,” Bennett said.
That’s true as well, of course, for Brogdon, who’s started 82 games during a UVA career that began in 2011-12.
Brogdon missed the 2012-13 season while recovering from foot surgery, and so he was a spectator during a humbling defeat. The Cavaliers played on Dec. 22 in 2012, too, and lost 63-61 that night to a struggling Old Dominion team in Richmond.
Christmas is a happier occasion, the `Hoos know, when a victory precedes the holiday. And so they won’t lack motivation against Cal in a match-up ESPN2 will televise.
“I think it’s a statement game for us,” Brogdon said. “We’re playing a very good team. People say they’re one of the most talented teams in the country, so I think it’s important for us to go off on a good note and sort of allow that momentum to carry us after Christmas.”
That he’ll be facing a team with several NBA prospects will stoke Brogdon’s competitive fires. Still, he said, “I’ve played against guys like that for five years in the ACC. So I get up for the game, but not more than I get up for really any other game. I’m going to come out and I’m going to give it my all.”