By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, the season doesn’t officially begin until Nov. 11. But head coach Tony Bennett‘s players will have worn UVA uniforms in game settings several times before the season opener against UNC Greensboro at the Greensboro Coliseum.
In August, the Cavaliers played five exhibition games in Spain, and the Blue-White intrasquad scrimmage was held last month before an appreciative crowd at John Paul Jones Arena.
Last Saturday, the Wahoos played the first of their two closed scrimmages against college teams. This one was against VCU at the Siegel Center in Richmond. Bennett prefers not to disclose many details about the scrimmage, but he said it gave the coaching staff more information about the team.
“Nothing earthshaking,” Bennett said after practice Tuesday at JPJ. “It was a step, but these are scrimmages, and we’re still forging our identity.”
The Rams were short-handed Saturday, “and that affected them,” Bennett said.
Virginia’s roster includes five freshmen: Kyle Guy, Jay Huff, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome, who were in high school last season, and Mamadi Diakite, who redshirted in 2015-16 but was able to practice with the team.
“A couple of those guys shot it well [against VCU],” Bennett said. “We had a good shooting day. But it’s like anything. You see those flashes, but can we be consistent and sustain it?
“And then they need to work on defense and soundness with the basketball. Those are two things that require a mindset that’s always an adjustment for all of us. There’s some areas that we looked at that we have to address, and we saw some positive things.”
Virginia’s standouts against VCU included Guy, a sharp-shooting guard from Indianapolis. “He got good open looks and got some rhythm shots, so that was nice to see,” Bennett said.
At the end of the official scrimmage, Bennett said, the teams played an extra eight-minute period. Virginia’s lineup consisted of the 6-11 Huff, the 6-9 Diakite, the 6-7 Hunter, the 6-5 Jerome and the 6-3 Guy.
“That was a very up-and-down affair,” Bennett said, smiling. “It was down for the first four minutes, and then they picked up.”
GROWING PAINS: All of the freshmen are lean, and adjusting to the physical nature of the college game may be their biggest challenge initially, Bennett said.
“I don’t want to put unfair expectations on those guys,” Bennett said. “That’s not right, because it’s probably going to ebb and flow. It’ll happen sooner for some than others. But there’s a physicality, and I think that’s why guys like Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris and Justin Anderson, to just name those three, have been able to do well early in college and to survive in one of the most physical levels in the NBA.
“That’s a big component of it, and that’s not a strength — no pun intended — of that young group right now. They have many strengths, but their physicality is a little bit of [a work in progress], but you see the flashes.”
UVA’s veterans include 6-7 junior Isaiah Wilkins, who was skinny himself when he arrived in Charlottesville.
Wilkins and senior point guard London Perrantes, along with Bennett, represented Virginia last week at ACC Operation Basketball, the league’s preseason media gathering, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I think they all can play,” Wilkins said of the Cavaliers’ freshmen. “I think they’re all skilled. First of all, they’re great guys off the court. There’s a lot of talent there. If they buy in like I think they will, Coach Bennett’s going to have some decisions to make.”
At least one of the freshmen is likely to redshirt this season.
LEARNING PROCESS: Diakite (pronounced Dee-ah-key-tay) moved from his native Guinea to the United States in January 2014 and enrolled at Blue Ridge School, not far from Charlottesville.
He did not speak fluent English before arriving in the U.S. Diakite has struggled at times to grasp the intricacies of the Cavaliers’ system, and “I think a big part of that is his language barrier,” Wilkins said.
“He’s relatively new to the country. But I’ve seen him take good strides going in the right direction. In practice if he doesn’t know something, he’ll speak up and say he doesn’t know it. That way the play doesn’t break down [when it’s run].”
Diakite must sit out the UNC Greensboro game, Virginia announced Tuesday. That punishment stems from the initial evaluation of Diakite’s amateur status that was conducted by the NCAA and UVA in 2015.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME: Virginia has won 45 of its past 48 games at JPJ. The Cavaliers were 15-0 there last season, the first time since 1981-82 they finished with an unbeaten record at home.
“We love our fans and we really appreciate them,” Wilkins said.
Season tickets for men’s basketball sold out again this year, noted Bennett, who’s in his eighth season at UVA.
“That wasn’t the way it was when we got there,” Bennett said, “and that’s been fun to see it build. The atmosphere, it’s become terrific, and that’s the excitement of the crowd and how the guys have played in trying to defend and protect home court, with everything you got. That’s huge for us, and, again, in a league like this, that’s going to be big, to try to protect that place.”
Bennett isn’t always aware of the crowd at JPJ, he said, but he loves that fans now cheer wildly for defensive stops and unselfish plays.
“I do hear when it gets loud and all that,” Bennett said. “I don’t know when it started, but all of the sudden when that shot clock would get in the red zone and you’d hear the crowd, that’s when I started to notice, `Hey, they appreciate it.’ Or a guy makes the next pass and they applaud at that. And I don’t know when that started. I can’t remember. But that’s probably when I said, `They’re cheering for a shot-clock violation. Yes!’ ”
BIG VOID: Tuesday night in New Orleans, Malcolm Brogdon made 6 of 10 shots from the floor and finished with 14 points, four assists, four steals and two rebounds to help the Bucks defeat the Pelicans 117-113.
Brogdon, of course, was an All-America guard for Virginia last season, and he was the player to whom Bennett usually turned late in the game. Brogdon, who averaged a team-high 18.2 points, not only could make clutch shots, he was one of the nation’s best from the line, making 89.7 percent of his free throws.
“That’s a nice luxury,” Bennett said.
With Brogdon gone, Perrantes figures to have the ball in his hands more late in games, and there’s reason to believe he’ll excel in that role. Perrantes’ catch-and-shoot 3-pointer with 10 seconds left in overtime lifted Virginia to a 63-62 victory over Cal last season at JPJ.
“In big games London has come up big,” Bennett said.
A four-year starter, Perrantes averaged 11.0 points and a team-high 4.4 assists per game in 2015-16.
Perrantes, who made a team-best 78 treys last season, will be asked to score more as a senior, Bennett acknowledged, but “I think I’d be making a mistake if I tried to completely change or overhaul London’s game and his mind and said, `You’ve got to morph into this for us to be good.’ … I think that’s a mistake if players change their identity too much.”
Bennett said he wants Perrantes to “be a touch more assertive offensively” but not to lose his feel for the game.
“That is his absolute strength,” Bennett said. “And he has looked to be more aggressive [as he’s grown older]. Every year he’s probably upped that ante a little bit, and so I think he’ll do that.”
For the first time in his college career, Perrantes figures to find himself the focus of opposing defenses that no longer must concern themselves with such players as Brogdon, Joe Harris, Justin Anderson, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey.
“There’s a lot of unknowns to that, and that will be challenging,” Bennett said, “and you sometimes have to experience that as a player: `Wow, they’re stacked up against me.’ And I think you have to have a good mind and a good feel to handle that and know when to be aggressive and when not to.
“His supporting cast is not as proven … We’re going to find out fairly soon how the other guys can step up.”
Perrantes hopes to play professionally after graduating from Virginia. But he won’t fall into the trap of trying to put up big numbers to raise his stock.
“I think winning is just going to help me,” Perrantes said. “Just like [in 2013-14], Joe may not have had his best season [statistically] in his career that year, but we won, so it helped him get drafted. It’s all going to take care of itself if I just help the team win. I’m just excited for this year, and we’ll see what else comes after that.”
STEPPING UP: Perrantes’ supporting cast includes redshirt junior Devon Hall, a 6-5 guard from Virginia Beach.
Hall, who started 20 games last season, has scored in double figures only four times in his UVA career, and he averaged a modest 4.4 points in 2015-16. Still, Bennett believes Hall can make a significant contribution this season.
“He’s really complete,” Bennett said. “He’s one of our more complete players, offensively and defensively. Physically, he’s strong. He embraces that.”
“I always say there’s a process that has to honored, and [most players] can’t short-cut it. You have to be willing to honor the process that’s needed to get to a certain spot and go through it and develop your body and your shot and your game and be in those situations. And he’s been faithful to that process, and he’s shown that he’s improved.”