By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
RALEIGH, N.C. — That the University of Virginia men’s basketball team has an exceptionally seasoned group of upperclassmen is no secret.
Among them, fifth-year seniors Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, seniors Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte, and junior London Perrantes have 329 starts as Cavaliers. Moreover, Gill started 26 games for South Carolina as a freshman in 2011-12. All five had important roles on the Virginia teams that advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2013-14 and 2014-15.
This year, the Wahoos are seeded No. 1 in the Midwest Region. UVA (27-7) meets No. 16 seed Hampton (21-10) in a first-round game Thursday at PNC Arena. TruTV will televise the game, which is scheduled to start around 3 p.m.
“I think experience is really important. I think it always [has been],” head coach Tony Bennett said Sunday night.
“This isn’t new for our guys, and I think they understand how prepared and how ready you gotta be, but also how you just have to play when you step into these settings. And I think that only comes from having been in that spot.”
Not every member of the Wahoos’ rotation, however, has significant postseason experience.
Redshirt sophomore guard Devon Hall, who has started 16 straight games, was a seldom-used reserve last season and did not play in either of Virginia’s NCAA tournament games: its victory over Belmont or its loss, in the round of 32, to Michigan State.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins, who has started 17 games this season, played a total of five minutes in last year’s NCAA tournament, all against Belmont in Charlotte, N.C.
Redshirt sophomore guard Darius Thompson has appeared in four NCAA tourney games, but that was in 2013-14, when he was a Tennessee reserve. Under NCAA rules, Thompson had to sit out last season and so was a spectator for Virginia’s two games in Charlotte.
Of the Cavaliers’ underclassmen, sophomore guard Marial Shayok gained the most NCAA tourney experience last year. The 6-5 Shayok played 11 minutes and scored five points against Belmont. Against Michigan State, Shayok scored six points in 15 minutes off the bench.
In a game when the `Hoos were 2 for 17 on 3-pointers, Shayok went 1 for 2 from beyond the arc.
Going into his second NCAA tournament, Shayok said Tuesday at John Paul Jones Arena, “I feel a lot more confident. I know exactly what to expect. You can’t underestimate anybody. That first game [against Hampton], that’s all we’ve got to focus on right now.”
Wilkins says he’s better prepared, too, even though his role in last year’s NCAA tournament was limited.
“I feel like I’ve been there and experienced it,” Wilkins said. “Even the Michigan State game, I’ve watched it, I’ve seen what’s going on, so it’s definitely a boost for me.”
He’s learned, Wilkins said, that the team must focus on itself while blocking out the hoopla and hype of March Madness.
“All that other noise doesn’t matter,” Wilkins said. “We’ve got [a lot of] seniors, and they want it, and we want it, so if we’re going to get it done, we’ve got to do it now.”
As a freshman, Wilkins averaged 9.4 minutes per game. His average has climbed to 21.6 this season, and so this figures to be much different NCAA tournament for him.
“Definitely,” he said. “I feel like I’m more of a contributor to this year’s team. Last year was a great experience, but actually being able to contribute more this year is definitely going to make it that much more of an experience for me.”
Thompson transferred to UVA after his freshman year. Tennessee barely made the NCAA tournament in 2013-14 and was sent to Dayton, Ohio, for the First Four.
After knocking off Iowa in Dayton, Tennessee flew to Raleigh, where the other teams, coincidentally, included Virginia. The Volunteers defeated Massachusetts and then Mercer at PNC Arena to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, where they dropped a close game to Michigan.
Thompson totaled 64 minutes and six points in his four NCAA tourney appearances for the Vols.
“I just remember all the energy around the tournament,” Thompson said Tuesday at JPJ, “how prepared you have to be, because every game could be your last.
“There was just so much hype around the school, because we didn’t know if we were actually going to make the tournament. And when we found out late that we made the tournament, everybody was just so excited going into it.”
The Cavaliers are excited, too, and that’s good, Bennett said. He doesn’t want them tight as they head into the NCAAs.
“Of course you have to be focused and play hard, but you have to go out and enjoy it and play, and be freed up to play,” Bennett said Monday. “I think we understand it. I think there’s a balance there. You talk about the blinders, absolutely, and the focus that’s there. But I always tell these guys: `Give thanks. You’re in a good opportunity, go out and lay it on the line and know that you can handle the best that can happen and you can handle the worst that can happen.’ ”
Wilkins and Shayok arrived at UVA in 2014 as a part of a recruiting class that also included Jack Salt, a 6-11 center from New Zealand. Salt redshirted last season, so his NCAA tournament debut could come in Raleigh.
Asked if he had any advice for Salt, his close friend and roommate, Shayok smiled.
“Just take in the moment and just stay together, regardless of what’s going on,” Shayok said. “If we’re up, if we’re down, just stay in the moment and take it a possession at a time.”
As it has all season, the spotlight figures to shine brightest on three Cavaliers during the NCAA tournament: the 6-5 Brogdon, the 6-8 Gill, and the 6-2 Perrantes.
Brogdon, a first-team All-American, was named the ACC’s top overall player and defensive player of the year this month, and Gill and Perrantes also ranked among the conference’s top players.
In their three seasons together, they’ve developed a special bond on the court, and Brogdon said he believes that “maturity and chemistry will play a big role for us [in the NCAA tourney].
“Me, London and A.G., being the guys that play the majority of the minutes on the team, and being the guys that have played big minutes on the team the past couple years, we’ve developed chemistry. We’ve developed a way of playing together that I think is really going to help us, help the team, in the postseason, and I think that’s what it really comes down to for teams in the postseason: If your lead guys can play together and they can do it at a high level and lead the team at a high level, then I think we can be successful.”
The Cavaliers will go as far, in all likelihood, as their upperclassmen take them. That doesn’t diminish the importance of the team’s supporting players.
“Everybody’s gotta contribute,” Shayok said. “Even if you’re not playing, you gotta have energy on the bench and be locked in during film and everything we do. I feel like we all have to be locked in.”