By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia hosts Wake Forest in ACC men’s basketball Sunday night at John Paul Jones Arena, and Jay Huff and De’Andre Hunter will warm up with their teammates as the 8 o’clock tipoff approaches, dropping in jump shots and throwing down dunks with ease.
Once the game starts, however, Huff and Hunter will remain on the Cavaliers’ bench. It’s not that they lack talent. Each has immense potential. But Huff and Hunter are the latest additions to a growing list of players who have redshirted in their first seasons in head coach Tony Bennett‘s program, thus preserving a year of eligibility.
UVA guard Devon Hall, now a redshirt junior, followed that path. So did center Jack Salt, a redshirt sophomore, and forward Mamadi Diakite, a redshirt freshman. (Redshirt junior guard Darius Thompson, a transfer from Tennessee, also sat out a season at Virginia, but that was required under NCAA rules.) Hall and Salt are starters this season, and Diakite is a key member of the Wahoos’ frontcourt rotation.
And then there’s assistant coach Jason Williford. As a UVA forward in the 1990s, he started 83 games for head coach Jeff Jones. As a freshman, though, Williford played only 36 minutes. Looking back, Williford said, he would rather have sat out that season and then been able to play as a fifth-year senior in 1995-96.
His counsel to Huff and Hunter when they were given the option of redshirting?
“That it’s not worth playing 36 minutes, or whatever it was I played,” Williford said. “If you can get bigger, stronger, work on your game, get ahead academically, it’s well worth it. Because had I had a fifth year, it would have paid dividends. Yes, it’s tough missing games and watching your teammates play, but in the long run it’s a huge, huge benefit.”
Huff, who’s from Durham, N.C., is listed on the UVA roster as 6-11. But he’s grown to 7-0 since enrolling at the University in June, and he’s up to 220 pounds, about 20 more than when he arrived.
The 6-7 Hunter, a small forward from Philadelphia, now weighs 218 pounds, about 20 more than when he joined the Cavaliers’ program in June.
In the fall, Bennett met separately with Hunter and Huff and asked them to consider redshirting. They might well have helped the `Hoos this season, but neither was likely to play significant minutes.
After 6-9 Austin Nichols was dismissed from the team in November, the coaching staff was tempted to play Huff this season, but “long range we feel like this is the best [move for him],” Bennett said. “Same with De’Andre. Both those guys have big upsides. We try to make sound decisions for their future.”
As a senior at Friends’ Central School, Hunter averaged 23.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.5 blocked shots per game and was named Pennsylvania’s Class AA player of the year. He came to UVA expecting to play this season and was initially taken aback when Bennett raised the possibility of a redshirt year.
“But I feel like it’s the best thing for me at this point,” Hunter said, “knowing the minutes that the starters and people at my position will play. So I feel like it’s the best decision.”
Before committing to a redshirt year, Hunter had dinner with Williford. “He told me he wished that he had redshirted [as a freshman] when he played here,” Hunter recalled.
Huff, a graduate of Voyager Academy, weighed only about 190 pounds as a 12th-grader, and he came to UVA knowing he might redshirt in 2016-17. So he wasn’t shocked when Bennett discussed that option with him.
“It just seemed like a good idea,” Huff said. “The team, I feel like, was going to get along fine without me playing this year, and if I wasn’t going to play much this year, then I would rather have four more years, maybe get my master’s and see where it goes. I prayed about it a lot, and it seemed like the right decision.”
Hunter and Huff also talked to Hall and Salt about their redshirting experiences.
“They said it was definitely worth it and helped them a lot,” Huff said.
Hall said: “It’s clichÃƒÂ©d to hear, but I just told them to trust the process. That’s something that was hard for me to hear, but it was so true, and I think they’re enjoying the process.”
A graduate of Cape Henry Collegiate in Virginia Beach, the 6-5 Hall had a small role for UVA as a redshirt freshman in 2014-15. But he started 20 of the final 21 games in 2015-16 for a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight, and he’s the Cavaliers’ second-leading rebounder. He’s also averaging a career-best 7.1 points this season.
“I think I took full advantage of [the redshirt year],” said Hall, who earned his bachelor’s degree last year. “At first I was a little hesitant to make it, but I think that looking back on it now, it was a big-time decision and smart decision.”
As Hall and Salt and Diakite did before them, Huff and Hunter spend much of their time at JPJ with Mike Curtis, Virginia’s strength and conditioning coach for basketball. They lift weights more often than their teammates, who have to conserve energy for games, and frequently stay on the court after practice for extra shooting sessions.
“I feel like I’m just getting better every day,” Hunter said. “I might as well use [the redshirt year] as a benefit instead of looking down on it.”
That he’s not the only one sitting out this season helps, Hunter said. “We’re going through the same thing. When you have someone there with you, it always makes it easier.”
Most freshmen, Curtis said, “come here with the goal and expectation to be contributors their first year here. Sometimes it doesn’t necessarily work out that way. I think having another person who’s there to kind of deal with the same lack of basketball fulfillment is good for you, because you have someone to talk to and go on that journey with.”
Hunter, who has a 7-2 wingspan, doesn’t need to gain much more weight, Curtis said. “He does need to get stronger — there’s no question about that — and he does need to get more explosive.”
But that’s only part of the training program Curtis has designed for Hunter.
“Dre is a very pleasant kid, but very quiet,” Curtis said. “Strength and conditioning sometimes is not just about the physical development, but it’s also about the mental and [taking] certain approaches that you hope will translate to them being more aggressive players when it comes time to play on the court.”
Huff is already one of the Cavaliers’ better 3-point shooters, and his length makes him a shot-blocking menace. He’s still lean, though, and needs to add more weight and strength. To that end, Curtis often sits with Huff during meals on the road. In addition to making sure the slender 7-footer eats enough, Curtis also learns more about what foods Huff likes and dislikes.
“I think the biggest challenge with Jay is the eating,” Curtis said, “getting enough calories in to support the amount of physical activity that he’s putting forth.
“From a basketball standpoint, from a training standpoint, one of the things that we’ve tried to do with this redshirt year is make sure it’s highly structured in terms of development in all phases, not just physically but also from a basketball and skill perspective. So it’s not like he’s just going to practice and doing a little bit of extra weights; he’s actually doing extra basketball as well. So to make sure that he’s getting enough calories to support all that effort is paramount.”
Every situation is different, Curtis noted, but he believes redshirting can be a enormous benefit for some players.
“If you’re in a situation where you’re not going to be able to get into the rotation and fulfill what your dream is,” Curtis said, “in terms of minutes played and all that other stuff, just based on the circumstance, in terms of talent that’s ahead of you or players that are ahead of you, it’s a beneficial thing to look at it from a development standpoint: How do I take this year and bridge the gap so that next year those are my minutes; so I’m able to physically and from a skill perspective step out on the court and be able to contribute to this team?”
There are times in practice, Williford said, when Hunter and Huff play so well that UVA’s coaching staff wonders if redshirting them was the best move.
“De’Andre has had his days,” Williford said, “and Jay can absolutely shoot the ball, and he’s a force defensively.”
Patience is required, for all parties concerned. The coaches know that Huff and Hunter figure to contribute much more as fifth-year seniors than as seldom-used true freshmen.
“That’s a pretty strong tradeoff,” Bennett said.