By Jeff White (email@example.com)
ORLANDO, Fla. — The University of Virginia’s most productive big man has been battling illness for several weeks, and it’s uncertain whether Isaiah Wilkins will play Thursday in his team’s NCAA tournament opener.
“It will probably be a game-time decision,” Wilkins said Wednesday afternoon before practicing for the first time this week.
“We’re just trying to be as smart as we can,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said when asked about Wilkins, a 6-7 forward who leads the team in rebounds, blocked shots and steals.
“Obviously, he’s the heart and soul of this team in many ways, but we’ll see where it goes after [Wednesday].”
At 12:40 p.m. Thursday, in an East Region first-round game, No. 5 seed UVA (22-10) meets No. 12 seed UNC Wilmington (29-5) at Amway Center, home of the NBA’s Orlando Magic.
Even if Wilkins, who was named to the ACC’s all-defensive team this month, plays against the Seahawks, he won’t be close to 100 percent. And so more will be asked of UVA’s other post players, especially 6-7 sophomore Jarred Reuter and 6-9 redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite, who average 10.9 minutes and 13.8 minutes per game, respectively.
“I’m ready,” Diakite said Wednesday before the Wahoos’ practice session. “Anything for this team. I really want us to go far this year, and I think we have a chance to do it. It’s all about heart.”
A native of Guinea, Diakite has season highs of 12 points (East Carolina), seven rebounds (Yale) and four blocked shots (Yale).
Reuter is coming off a game — UVA’s loss to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament quarterfinals — in which he scored nine points in 13 minutes. His best performance this season came in late November, when he totaled 14 points and nine rebounds in a win over Iowa.
“Obviously we want Isaiah to play,” Reuter said. “I personally want Isaiah to play. I feel bad for him that he’s struggling with being sick, and hopefully he gets a chance to play. But if he doesn’t, I’m happy to have that opportunity, and I’m ready to step up to do what I can to help us.”
Of his performance against Notre Dame, Reuter said, “I’m confident in myself and my abilities, especially to score, but that only helps. I haven’t been playing a bunch, but getting some minutes and proving to myself that I have that ability is good.”
Reuter played in two of UVA’s four NCAA tournament games last season. Diakite does not have that experience to draw on, “but I’m pretty sure that it’s going to be very tough,” he said, “because no one is trying to go home so early. So I’m just ready to put everything on the floor.”
Whatever awaits him, Diakite is thrilled to be in the Sunshine State, where temperatures rose into the 60s on Wednesday. Other opening-weekend sites, such as Buffalo, N.Y., are considerably less inviting.
“I hate the snow,” Diakite said, smiling. “This is weather that’s very similar to my country’s.”
MAJOR CHALLENGE: UNCW’s best big man is Devontae Cacok. A 6-7, 240-pound forward from Riverdale, Ga., Cacok leads the nation in field-goal percentage (79.9). He averages 12.3 points and 9.6 rebounds and recently was named the Colonial Athletic Association’s defensive player of the year.
“From the film we’ve watched, he has a bunch of different ways to finish around the rim,” Reuter said, “and he gets a lot of looks close to the baskets on pick and rolls. He’s athletic, and for us that’s going to be a challenge, just getting back in the play [after] blowing up ball screens and getting good position on him so he doesn’t get as many open looks.”
UNCW’s head coach, Kevin Keatts, said Cacok might be the most improved player in the college game. As a freshman, Cacok averaged 3.3 points and 2.9 rebounds.
A former Louisville assistant coach, Keatts compared Cacok to current NBA players Montrezl Harrell and Kenneth Faried.
Cacok is “probably one of the best finishers I’ve ever had as a coach,” Keatts said. “He’s really good around the basket. He knows how to finish. He plays with a motor, and he runs the floor well and [is] a tremendous offensive player.”
WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR: Virginia’s roster includes 12 scholarship players, but only 10 of them have appeared in games this season. Before the opener in November, Bennett decided, with the blessing of each, to redshirt Jay Huff and De’Andre Hunter, and he stuck with that decision.
Even though he won’t play in this NCAA tourney, Huff said Wednesday, “I’m still getting excited. It’s going to be fun.”
Hunter feels the same way.
“It gets me excited,” he said, “hoping next year we can be in this same position and I’ll be able to play.”
Huff, who’s listed at 6-11, has grown to 7-0 since enrolling at UVA last summer. He’s also gained about 20 pounds, which puts him in the 225-pound range.
The 6-7 Hunter, who has a 7-2 wingspan, has bulked up too, from 200 to 220 pounds. He and Huff have practiced with the team all season. During games, home and away, they watch from the Cavaliers’ bench.
“It’s been tough to sit through games,” Huff said, “but it’s been good overall. It’s been a good year to work out, get bigger, stronger, better.”
Sitting out has been frustrating at times for him, Hunter said, “but we’re almost at the end now. It’s really just excitement now, knowing that the season’s almost over and next year I’ll be playing. Right now I’m just trying to cheer on these guys, and hopefully they’ll win every game.”
NO INTRODUCTIONS REQUIRED: Orlando Vandross spent five seasons as an assistant coach at UNC Charlotte before coming to UVA, where he’s in his second year as director of recruiting/player development.
Charlotte’s guards in 2012-13 and 2013-14 included Denzel Ingram, who transferred to UNCW after his sophomore season.
The 6-0, 175-pound Ingram, a second-team All-CAA selection, is a two-year starter at point guard for the Seahawks. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 5.5 assists this season.
When he watched film of Ingram at UNCW, Vandross said Wednesday, “I think his body was the first thing that stood out to me. Physically, he’s improved his body. Not that he was in bad shape, but you can see that he’s made a commitment to take care of his body.
“And then he always had confidence, but he’s playing with great confidence, because obviously he knows this is his last run.”
As a sophomore at Charlotte, Ingram averaged 15.4 points and 5.4 assists.
“He was part of a lot of good wins, and I’m not surprised by the success he’s having [at UNCW],” Vandross said. “He’s a talented kid, and sometimes big things come in small packages.”
BATTLE-TESTED: For Virginia, this is its fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, a streak matched only once before in program history (1981-84).
UNCW has won back-to-back CAA titles and is in the NCAAs for the second straight year. In 2016, the Seahawks led Duke 43-40 at halftime of their first-round game. The Blue Devils rallied to win 93-85, but many of the standouts from that UNCW team returned this season.
After the loss to Duke, Keatts said Wednesday, his team was “really disappointed — disappointed because we really felt like we could win the game. And a lot of times as a mid-major, when you come into this tournament, you’re excited to be here. For us, we felt like we could have won the game.
“I will tell you this now, we’ve taken that game, and our guys went to work in the spring and the summer, and they’ve gotten better in a lot of areas. We’ve got some guys who played in that game last year who look forward to another opportunity.”
Keatts, who grew up in Lynchburg, Va., had two stints on the postgraduate staff at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., including eight seasons as head coach. Three of his Hargrave players went on to play at UVA: Keith Jenifer, Jason Clark and Mike Scott.
LOOKING AHEAD: The UVA-UNCW winner will play No. 4 seed Florida or No. 13 seed East Tennessee State on Saturday, at a time to be determined.
Both Bennett and Keatts expect a fiercely contested game Thursday afternoon.
The Cavaliers “certainly respect [UNCW} and we know we’ll have to play,” Bennett said. “That’s the reality. If you don’t play well, you won’t advance. You have to play, not perfect, but you’ve got to play well.”
Keatts said: “We have a lot of respect for Virginia. Obviously, Tony has done a tremendous job with their program. When you look at it, they’re one of the best defensive teams in the country. We’ve got to do a lot of things to be able to score against those guys.”
As is the case with many UVA games, this one will feature contrasting styles. The `Hoos rank first nationally in scoring defense (55.6 ppg). The Seahawks average 85.2 points per game.
“Here’s the weird thing: all the tape that I’ve watched on [the Cavaliers], I don’t know that you can speed them up,” Keatts told reporters, “but that being said, we’re going to try to speed them up.
“I think we’ve got to do a good job of trying to get out and get some fast-break points. I think you have to have a lot of player and ball movement. I think their defense is best when you’re just standing around a lot. I do think that we’ve got to try to get in and press.
“What’s tough about pressing those guys is that, if you don’t score, you can’t press. That’s the tough thing about it. This is probably the best defense that we’re going to face since I’ve been at UNCW.”