By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Virginia men’s basketball team concluded practice at John Paul Jones Arena around 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The Cavaliers will work out at JPJ again this season, but they hope it’s not anytime soon.
Virginia (24-6) arrived in Washington, D.C., site of the ACC tournament, on Wednesday night. For the second-seeded Cavaliers, their postseason begins Thursday.
In the 7 p.m. quarterfinal, UVA will meet No. 10 seed Georgia Tech (19-13) at Verizon Center. The Yellow Jackets rallied from an 18-point deficit in the second half and defeated No. 7 seed Clemson 88-85 in overtime Wednesday night.
In 2014, the Wahoos won the ACC tournament for the first time since 1976 and only second time overall. Last year, the top-seeded `Hoos lost to North Carolina in the semifinals.
One of the keys to success in the tourney, Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon said Monday, is to “be the mentally toughest team there. It’s about endurance at this point. It’s about not believing your body’s fatigued and just playing through it and continuing to try to play the right way.”
Before entering ACC play, UVA played a challenging non-conference schedule that included games against George Washington, Ohio State, West Virginia, Villanova and California.
“I think in order to have success, we’ve had to be resilient,” Brogdon said. “We’ve had to bounce back. We’ve had to come out and play from the very beginning of games, or we would get embarrassed. So I think the fact that our back was a little bit against the wall in terms of the strength of our schedule, we had to step up to the challenge.”
UVA and Georgia Tech met once during the regular season, Jan. 9 in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets outrebounded Virginia 41-29 and made 8 of 15 shots from beyond the 3-point arc in a 68-64 victory.
The Jackets have won six of their past seven games.
“I think they’re a different team than when we played them,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said Monday, “and my hope obviously is that we’re a different team as well.”
TOTAL PACKAGE: Perhaps the highest basketball-related compliment Bennett can pay a player is to call him “complete.”
To say Brogdon qualifies as such would be a colossal understatement. Brogdon, a fifth-year senior from Atlanta, was named ACC player of the year and ACC defensive player of the year by media voters on Sunday. He received those same honors from the ACC’s coaches Monday.
Brogdon is the first player to win both awards in the same season. On Wednesday, the Sporting News named Brogdon a first-team All-American.
“You just don’t see many two-way players,” Bennett said Monday at JPJ, and that’s what makes the 6-5, 215-pound Brogdon so special.
Brogdon leads Virginia in scoring and free-throw percentage. He’s second in steals and assists and third in rebounds. At various times this season, he’s successfully defended such stars as Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram of Duke and Cat Barber of NC State.
“When you see a guy that’s that complete, that steady, that’s helped his team win,” Bennett said, “and how he’s done it with his kind of character, I think coaches respect that and admire that … What a legacy he’ll leave behind.”
Brogdon said it’s long been important for him to be more than a one-dimensional player.
“Growing up, playing basketball for AAU and in high school, I’ve always had coaches tell me, `You need to specialize in one thing. If you’re going to get to the highest level, you have to specialize,’ ” Brogdon said Monday.
He didn’t agree. “I’ve always prided myself on being versatile, on working on everything and not limiting my game or limiting my repertoire,” Brogdon said. “That’s always been a huge focus of mine, to work on everything and get as good at everything as I can.”
Of his reaction to the awards he’s received this week, Brogdon said, “You rejoice in the moment of which you hear the news, but then after that you’ve got to refocus and you’ve got to get back in the zone for the next practice, the next day.”
At the end of the 2014-15 academic year, Brogdon considered leaving UVA to pursue a professional basketball career. He chose to stay at the University, where he’s finishing a master’s program in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.
“He came back this senior year and it helped him, it helped us and he’s gotten experience,” Bennett said. “I remember talking [to Brogdon] about it: `You can have it all. You can get your master’s, you can be part of a good team and we’re going to try to play our best heading into postseason. You can have some great individual opportunities.’ ”
Especially impressive, Bennett said, is how Brogdon has elevated his game.
“You don’t usually see a guy improve in his last year as much as Malcolm did,” Bennett said. “He’s gotten more efficient, I’ve seen him asserting his leadership. … To be recognized like he was, in this kind of league with this kind of talent, it’ll be something that will stand the test of time, I’m sure.”
HIGH PRAISE: Virginia closed the regular season last Saturday night with a 68-46 win over then-No. 11 Louisville at JPJ. Afterward, the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame coach talked extensively about the Cavaliers.
“They’re a team that’s fun to prepare for, fun to watch,” Rick Pitino said. “They have a legitimate chance — because of their experience, the way they shoot the ball, the way they shoot free throws, the way they play defense — of doing a lot of great things in the [NCAA] tournament.
“They’ve got all the things ready to make a great [postseason] run. They’ve got one of my favorite coaches of all time, Tony Bennett. I just love him as a person, love him as a coach. I love their experience. They teach. You can learn a lot by watching film from them and the way they cover for each other defensively.”
CENTER OF ATTENTION: Against Louisville, in his final game at JPJ, senior center Mike Tobey grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds.
“I’m still smiling about it,” Tobey said two days later. “Honestly, it felt good to just play free. I was having fun, and it felt good.”
For the season, the 7-0 Tobey is averaging 6.7 points and 4.4 rebounds, and he’s shooting a team-high 57.3 percent from the floor.
His career has been a roller-coaster ride in which consistency has eluded him, but Tobey has persevered.
“He’s just worked. He’s battled,” Bennett said. “Like every player, he’s had to deal with discouragement. Sure, at times he’s had a short leash from me. But he’s really a good young man. He’s kind-hearted, he cares. I said it after the game, of course when I see collective team success, it’s great. But when I see an individual that has had ups and downs touch that and see that, that makes me as happy as anything, and I saw that in him. You could see it in his face.”
LEARNING PROCESS: Bennett was asked last spring about the role he envisioned in 2015-16 for Jack Salt in a frontcourt that included seniors Anthony Gill, Evan Nolte and Tobey.
Whatever the 6-11 Salt could accomplish as a redshirt freshman this season would be “icing on the cake,” Bennett told VirginiaSports.com. The most important thing, Bennett said, was that Salt “be ready when Mike and Evan and Anthony leave.”
Salt still figures in Virginia’s long-range plans, but how much he’ll play during this postseason is uncertain. He’s appeared in only two of Virginia’s past eight games, for a total of about three minutes.
For the season, he’s averaging 1.7 points, 1.3 rebounds and 7.1 minutes per game. Salt, a chiseled 250-pounder, is one of the Cavaliers’ most physical players, and Bennett likes his toughness.
Salt started three games early in the season — wins over George Mason, Lehigh and Ohio State — and then six more during the first half of Virginia’s ACC schedule.
He’s logged more than 13 minutes only once, against GMU, but after sitting out last season, Salt said Monday, it’s “been good to finally get to play a little. It’s definitely been an adjustment, but I’ve learned a lot.
“I definitely realize how much faster the pace [of the college game] is, and that’s something I’ve had to adjust to, and will have to keep adjusting to. Now I know what to practice for in preparation for [postseason] and for next season, so I’ve really got a good idea what I need to keep working on.”
Salt said he’s focused on “learning. Just learning. When you’re not playing, it’s tough, but the team’s doing well, and that’s the biggest thing. I’ve just got to keep working.”
Ron Sanchez, UVA’s associate head coach, said: “I think any experience, when you’re on the floor, really helps you. Even if you play 30 minutes in a season, just that experience alone helps you going into the following season.”
Salt, who’s from Auckland, New Zealand, redshirted in 2014-15, when the Wahoos won a second straight ACC regular-season title, but made an impression with his physicality in practice. He hasn’t played as much basketball as his teammates, so his learning curve has been steep, but he’s “one of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever been around,” Tobey said.
Gill said: “I think he’s really going to help this team out a lot next year. He’s such a physical player, sometimes to a fault. I think the biggest thing for him this offseason is learning how to play without fouling, because he is getting a touch around the basket. He’s always going to go to the offensive glass hard, and he’s a great finisher. I think the biggest thing for him is just to be able to understand the game of basketball a little bit better this offseason.”
The Cavaliers will head oversees in August and play several games in Spain. That experience, Sanchez said, should accelerate Salt’s development.
“I don’t know if you can speed it up from a drill standpoint,” Sanchez said. “You can drill all day, but he has to play, and I think this is the great part about the European tour this summer. Jack works unbelievably hard. When you have that kind of work ethic, it’s inevitable that at some point those wires will connect.
“With him, it’s just about being on the floor. I think the summer is going to be big for him. And again, he’s only a freshman. We’re a program that’s had success with juniors and seniors, as you can see from what we’re doing this season. So he still has time to come along and develop. But the one thing we don’t question is his work ethic.”