By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
NEW YORK — The ACC men’s basketball tournament is being played this week at the home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, and the University of Virginia’s presence in that league continues to grow.
Three of head coach Tony Bennett‘s former players — Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogdon and Justin Anderson — are on the rosters of Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, respectively. A fourth former Cavalier, Mike Scott, is a five-year NBA veteran who’s looking for a new team, and a fifth, Mike Tobey, played in two games for the Charlotte Hornets last month.
“I think it’s huge,” Harris said Monday night at Barclays Center as the Cavaliers practiced a few feet away. “Coach Bennett doesn’t now have to sell the fact that his system translates to the NBA. I think it’s really good for the program going forward, because you can sell that the fact that what he does translates well to the next level.”
Harris, a 6-6 guard, said he relishes interacting with former UVA teammates in the NBA.
“It’s definitely one of the coolest things, just being able to meet up with those guys whenever I go into Milwaukee or any of those guys come into New York,” Harris said. “And now with Justin being in Philadelphia, I’ll be able to play against him a couple of more times to finish out the year. So it’s obviously amazing to be able to share an NBA court with your former teammates, but even better just to be able to catch up when you’re traveling on the road.”
Harris, who as a senior in 2014 helped the Wahoos capture the ACC tournament title, had not expected to be in Brooklyn this week. But he suffered a concussion and sprained his left shoulder Friday night during Brooklyn’s game at Utah, and the Nets sent him home.
“Obviously, you never want to get hurt,” Harris said, “but if there was a time for me to get hurt, but I guess it’s good right now, being able to come back, watch [the `Hoos] practice and then hopefully be able to go and watch a couple games over the course of the week.”
UVA, the No. 6 seed, earned a first-round bye. Virginia (21-9) will play No. 11 seed Georgia Tech or No. 14 seed Pittsburgh in a second-round game Wednesday at approximately 9:15 p.m. The Yellow Jackets meet the Panthers on Tuesday night.
“I think the atmosphere here is going to be real electric,” Harris said. “I know people have been talking about the ACC tournament being here, ever since [Brooklyn] won the bid to host. New York is definitely a basketball city. I’ve seen it just playing here so far this season. Every single one of our games and the Knicks’ games are sold out, no matter what kind of shape the team is in.”
Harris said he’s loved “being a fan and just watching as many UVA games as I can.”
Two players from the 2013-14 team are still on the roster: senior London Perrantes and redshirt junior Devon Hall. Perrantes, of course, is a four-year starter at point guard, and “it’s been pretty cool to see what he’s done and kind of the mark that he’s going to leave on this program,” Harris said. “So I’m excited to see what ends up happening here in March.”
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, were excited to see Harris at practice.
“It’s always good to see familiar faces,” junior forward Isaiah Wilkins said.
NIGHT OWLS: For as long as the Cavaliers are in Brooklyn this week, they won’t play a game that starts before 9 p.m.
“It is a lot of waiting around, but do we have time to rest, and that helps us out,” Hall said Monday night.
However, he added, “I’m not going to do that much sleeping [during the day]. I don’t want to end up groggy when it comes to the game.”
During the regular season, Virginia played three games that tipped off at 9 p.m., four that started at 8 p.m., and one that began at 8:15 p.m. Also, in late December, UVA faced California in Berkeley in a game that started at 10 p.m. Eastern.
ON THE MEND: For most of the past two weeks, the 6-7 Wilkins has been slowed by an illness that limited his availability for games and practices.
As the start of postseason approaches for UVA, Wilkins, who was named to the ACC’s all-defensive team, is feeling better. Still, he’s not 100 percent.
“I’m just out of shape now,” he said Monday night. “I’m winded. I get tired super fast. So hopefully I get my [conditioning] back. I’m coughing a little bit, but I don’t feel that sick anymore.
“It’s tough mentally, because I just want to go out there and go like I did before, and obviously I’m not in a position to be able to do that. I’m just trying to figure it out, trying to go out there and give what I can.”
Wilkins, who started Virginia’s first 27 games this season, has come off the bench in the past three. He’s averaging 7.1 points and a team-high 6.2 rebounds and also leads the `Hoos in blocked shots with 42.
FILLING OUT: Second on the team in blocks is 6-9 redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite, who weighed about 190 pounds when he enrolled at UVA in the summer of 2015. He’s now at 223.
“So I’m on a good track,” said Diakite, 20, a native of Guinea.
Lifting weights has made Diakite stronger, but that’s only part of his regimen.
“I just eat a lot,” he said, “like five meals a day, and I make sure right before I go to bed I eat something.
“It’s very hard to do, because sometimes you’re full. I’m not always hungry, but I know that I have space in my stomach.”
Diakite, a graduate of Blue Ridge School near Charlottesville, is averaging 3.9 points, 2.6 rebounds and 14 minutes per game. In four of the Cavaliers’ past five games, however, he’s played at least 20 minutes.
At UVA, Diakite said, he’s learned that even the most gifted players “have to follow steps. You have to take it slowly, and it’s a matter of understanding how the system works.”
He arrived at the University, Diakite admits now, with expectations that were perhaps unrealistic.
“At first I thought I would snap my fingers [and have success],” he said, “because I thought I was more athletic than a lot of people, but that wasn’t the case, because there were a lot of things I didn’t learn at first that I know now. And it’s kind of exciting. I don’t know where I’ll get to, but I’ll try to improve as much as I can each year.”
His lapses in practice occasionally frustrate Bennett, but the Cavaliers’ coach wouldn’t challenge him “if he didn’t know that I can do it,” Diakite said. “And he said I was very special, and he thinks I can go really far. I just need to start fighting through stuff from the beginning of practice and not just come slow into it.”
At practice Monday night, Diakite wore bright yellow Nike shoes: a tribute, he said, to Guinea’s flag, whose colors are yellow, green and red.
OFF THE MARK: Beginning Jan. 8, when Virginia defeated Wake Forest at John Paul Jones Arena, junior swingman Marial Shayok started 14 straight games. In the last of those games, however, Shayok went 0 for 4 from the floor, and he’s 1 for 5 since then.
Shayok said he has faith his shooting touch will return.
“Yeah, you gotta stay that way,” he said. “You’ve got to keep that mindset and stay as confident as you can and just show up ready to play.”
For the season, Shayok is second on the team in scoring (8.7 ppg). All players, he noted, occasionally go through slumps.
“I guess my time is right now,” Shayok said. “It’s just been the last two, three games where I haven’t seen [shots] fall as much. I’ve just got to stay confident and be ready. It’s a new season now.”
BACK ON TRACK? In Virginia’s regular-season finale, a 67-42 win over Pitt at JPJ, redshirt junior guard Darius Thompson was 2 for 3 from beyond the arc.
That ended an eight-game stretch in which Thompson, who didn’t play Feb. 25 against NC State because of an illness, did not make a 3-pointer.
“It felt like it’s been a while since I’ve seen one go in,” Thompson said Monday night. “Definitely seeing one go down, and then the next one, definitely helps my confidence.”
Thompson started the Cavaliers’ first 13 games this season. Since then, however, he’s come off the bench, and his minutes have fluctuated from game to game.
“I wouldn’t say it’s hard,” Thompson said. “It’s definitely not what you want. But it’s a team sport. Whatever’s best for the team is what you want to do to get a win for the team.”