By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In one sense, little has changed in the University of Virginia men’s basketball program.
In 2015-16, the Cavaliers’ seventh season under head coach Tony Bennett, they averaged 71 points per game.
Through 10 games this season, Virginia is averaging 71.2 points. But in 2015-16, when the Wahoos advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight, they had three players who averaged more than 10 points per game: All-America guard Malcolm Brogdon (18.2), 6-8 Anthony Gill (13.8) and 6-2 London Perrantes (11.0).
With Brogdon and Gill gone, the offensive hallmark of Bennett’s latest team is balance. The 13th-ranked `Hoos (9-1) have nine players scoring at least 5.7 points per game. None, however, is averaging in double figures.
“That’s not who we are right now,” Bennett said Saturday evening when asked about the lack of an elite scorer in Virginia’s lineup.
“We just have to take what we have … We’ve just got to find ways to manufacture [scoring], We do not have a guy where you can say he’s going to get you 20 tonight, or 15 or 18. But the balance, I think, is good, and that’s what’s different about this team, and I think as the competition increases, we’ll continue to learn more about ourselves.”
After a long break for final exams, the Cavaliers returned to John Paul Jones Arena for a non-conference game with Robert Morris. The Colonials (3-9) stayed close for much of the first half — they led 13-12 at the 6:30 mark — but Virginia eventually took control.
The `Hoos closed the half on a 20-5 run and didn’t let up after intermission. In their first game in 11 days, the Cavaliers won 79-39.
“Obviously, they wear you down,” Robert Morris head coach Andrew Toole said.
The 39 points were the fewest the Colonials have scored in seven seasons under Toole, but such defensive tour de forces are not unusual for Virginia. Opponents are shooting 33.9 percent from the floor against UVA this season.
At the other end, the `Hoos shot 59.6 percent and had four players score in double figures: redshirt junior guard Devon Hall, who matched his career high with 13 points; freshman guard Kyle Guy (13), redshirt sophomore center Jack Salt (career-high 10) and sophomore forward Jarred Reuter (10).
“Obviously they have a number of guys that can score,” Toole said. “I know from a coaching standpoint it helps you sleep at night a little bit when you have a guy that you know is going to get you 15-plus [points]. You know you can start to kind of build around that guy and then have other guys chip in and contribute when the opportunity arises.
“But they pass the ball so well, they move the ball so well. That’s got to be their M.O. for the rest of the year. It does make it difficult when it’s different guys each night, when it’s maybe guys on the perimeter one night and guys in the paint another night.”
That the Cavaliers are a selfless group was apparent again Saturday. Of their 31 field goals, 21 were assisted. Junior forward Isaiah Wilkins and freshman Ty Jerome each had a career-high six assists. Perrantes, the only senior among Virginia’s scholarship players, added four assists.
In one sequence early in the second half, Perrantes passed to redshirt junior Darius Thompson, who passed up a layup to feed Wilkins for a two-handed dunk.
“The one thing about this team, they’re not a selfish team in any way,” Bennett said. “I’ve talked about their unity. They share the ball, and defensively I think they know they have to probably [continue improving] and help each other out that way.
“But this team’s unselfishness, or their unity, is different than a lot of teams I’ve coached. Not that I’ve had selfish teams, but this team, it’s really significant.”
Perrantes, who leads Virginia in scoring (9.6 ppg), also is No. 1 in assists (4.4 per game). But five other Cavaliers are averaging at least 1.6 assists per game.
“We talk about it every day in practice,” Perrantes said, “how we play for each other and play selfless [ball]. That showed tonight. Everybody’s able to make plays. So we know that we don’t have to shoot the ball. We can make that extra pass and get a better shot. I’m glad that we’re playing that way. We’re trying to get everybody’s confidence going as we get into some tougher games, and playing the way that we did tonight is going to help.”
Those tougher games are fast approaching. The Cavaliers will fly Monday to the West Coast, and on Wednesday night they’ll face the California Golden Bears (9-2) in Berkeley.
Cal has won a program-record 27 consecutive games in Haas Pavilion. Then comes the Cavaliers’ ACC opener: a Dec. 28 game at No. 11 Louisville.
“The competition will step up from here on out,” Bennett said, “and we’ll have to be ready.”
In late November, Virginia defeated Iowa and Providence on consecutive nights to win the Emerald Coast Classic in Niceville, Florida. But the Cavaliers have played only one true road game this season. That was on Nov. 11, when Bennett’s team opened the season with a win over UNC Greensboro at the Greensboro Coliseum, where Virginia fans were well-represented in the crowd.
Perrantes, who’s from Los Angeles, and Salt, who’s from New Zealand, will have friends and family members in the stands at Cal. The overwhelming majority of fans inside Haas Pavilion, though, will be rooting for the Bears.
At JPJ last season, UVA edged Cal 63-62 in overtime. The `Hoos took their first — and only — lead of the game on a Perrantes 3-pointer with 10 seconds left in OT.
Bennett, who knows Haas Pavilion well from his coaching days at Washington State, said he expects the rematch to “be a high-quality game. I remember our game here last year, and I’ve been in that gym many times … and it’ll be a loud, active crowd.”
The atmosphere will be unlike anything Guy, Jerome and redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite have experienced as college players.
The key for the Cavaliers, Hall said, is to “come out and do exactly what we do each and every day in practice … knowing that we’re going maybe to a hostile environment and we haven’t been on the road in a long time. [Virginia needs to] go out and try to put our foot on the gas from the jump.”
For Bennett, the game against Robert Morris provided multiple teachable moments, especially for the team’s younger players, including the 6-9 Diakite, who played only 15 minutes before fouling out.
“We’re going to need Ty, we’re going to need Jarred, we’re going to need Mamadi,” Bennett said. “We’re going to need all these guys. They’re all going to play, and we’ve got to kind of shrink our lapses.”
Against Robert Morris, the breakdowns weren’t always costly, but “that won’t fly next game,” Bennett told his players. “You’re not going to have a 30-point cushion. You guys got to get comfortable with the fact that if we’re playing well, we’ll probably be in a lot of close games.”
Bennett “says that to us a lot,” Jerome said. “We don’t have the same margin for error as last year. We might not have the same firepower. Our strength this year is unity and how unified we are, and our depth.”