By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Another summer, another trip to Europe for University of Virginia basketball player Jay Huff.
A 7-foot forward from Durham, N.C., Huff toured Spain with the Cavaliers last year. This time he’s headed to the Czech Republic and Poland with an Athletes in Action team.
“This is the most I’ve traveled out of the country in my life,” Huff said last week at John Paul Jones Arena. Before last summer, he had been outside the continental United States only once — on a trip to Puerto Rico.
“It was just cool seeing how some other parts of the world work and how different they are,” said Huff, who’ll be a redshirt freshman next season.
At UVA, he’s active in the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship. When Virginia assistant coach Brad Soderberg learned about the Athletes in Action tour, he “recommended it for me,” Huff said, “and he said it would be good for both the fellowship part of it and the Christian aspect of it, as well as some playing experience, since I redshirted this year. He said all the coaches figured I should go on it.”
In August 2013, Ritchie McKay, then the Cavaliers’ associate head coach, and post player Anthony Gill toured Jamaica with an Athletes in Action team. Gill redshirted in 2012-13 after transferring to UVA from South Carolina, and the experience helped prepare him for the 2013-14 season.
Huff, who graduated from Durham’s Voyager Academy in 2016, is hoping his latest trip to Europe pays similar dividends.
“I’m excited, for sure,” he said. “I haven’t played in an actual game for a while, so I think it’ll be interesting. It’ll be fun.”
The Athletes in Action team will train in Prague, May 24-27. Two games against the Czech Republic’s U20 national team and three against the Belarus national team in Poland will follow. The team will return to the United States on June 5, a week before the second session of summer school starts at UVA.
“It worked out perfectly,” Huff said of the schedule.
When he committed to UVA in May 2015, Huff weighed about 180 pounds. He’s worked diligently with Mike Curtis, Virginia’s strength and conditioning coach for basketball, and Randy Bird, Virginia’s director of sports nutritionist, to add muscle and mass.
Huff said he weighed in at 229 pounds twice last week.
“Getting there,” he said.
ALL IN: For UVA, the 2016-17 season ended with a 65-39 loss to Florida in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32. In his postgame press conference, head coach Tony Bennett praised his team’s perseverance in the face of adversity and said it ranked among the favorite groups he’s coached.
“Though it ended hard, I meant what I said,” Bennett said recently at JPJ. “It wasn’t just lip service. They got close to maxing out. And you could just see when we weren’t right, we could really have a hard, hard time. So that showed the reality, but it also gives us a hunger to improve in the offseason. But when I step back and I look at what this team accomplished with some of the obstacles it had to face — the record, where they finished, how far they went — I take my hat off to them.”
After a short break, Virginia’s returning players started workouts that ended last month. Having lost senior London Perrantes, plus three players who decided to transfer (Marial Shayok, Jarred Reuter and Darius Thompson), the coaching staff did not have a large group with which to work.
Still, Bennett said, it “was a real productive spring. It was a real good four-week or three-week period where it was a little more focused and purposeful than we’ve had.
“[The message] was: Get to work. We’ve got the guys who we’ve got. We talk about everybody in the boat rowing in the same direction to move forward and be as efficient and effective as we can.
“We’ve got the right guys rowing in the boat, and that’s important. You have to find that out. And that’s not a slam on the guys that left, but it’s a reality. The guys that want to be here are here, and the guys that didn’t want to be here, or think there are other opportunities [elsewhere], are not.”
“They’re a big part of this,” Bennett said.
The 6-9 Diakite, who enrolled at UVA in the summer of 2015, redshirted in 2015-16. He averaged 3.8 points and 2.6 rebounds and was second on the team in blocked shots in 2016-17.
Huff, Hunter, Jerome and Guy enrolled last year. Huff and Hunter redshirted in 2016-17, and the 6-5 Jerome and the 6-2 Guy were key backcourt reserves for the most of the season.
“I think the experience Mamadi, Kyle and Ty got as first-years was invaluable, because they’re going to be called upon, obviously, to do more,” Bennett said. “With our departures, a lot’s going to be required of those young guys, and that can be hard. But in the long run, that’s better for them and for us. There are going to be many, many opportunities for them.”
For Jerome and Guy, the key is “becoming more efficient and more consistent,” Bennett said. “They were really good [at times] and showed that promise, and then there were some valleys of being inconsistent.
“Their eyes are wide open. They know what to expect. Physically they’re going to be in a different place than they were last year at that time. It’s not new to them. They know, `Hey, this is intense. This is the duration of the season,’ and I think that’s going to be important for those guys.”
This offseason, Jerome and Guy are looking to add “strength, explosiveness, in some cases weight, in some cases mobility,” Bennett said. “We’ve got the best in the business” — Mike Curtis — “for that.”
The 7-0 Huff and the 6-7 Hunter have great promise, but it’s important to “remember that they haven’t played college basketball yet,” Bennett said. “They redshirted. They’re like rookies.”
Other players who have redshirted at UVA, including Gill, were “usually a little rusty [at first],” Bennett said.
“It’s just a little different. There are absolutely going to be ups and downs and experiences, and I think people will be excited about the flashes of potential you’ll see, but I’m also realistic with those young guys that have redshirted and have not played a college game. It still takes time, but the potential is there. It’s about the patience for everybody and the willingness to stay after it and be persistent and consistent.”
Bennett and one of his returning players, Devon Hall, spoke at a recent Virginia Athletics Foundation social in Virginia Beach. Hall, who redshirted in 2013-14, will compete as a graduate student in 2017-18, as he did in 2016-17.
At the gathering in Virginia Beach, Bennett said, Hall “talked about what he learned through his redshirt year. I like the upside [of Huff and Hunter] but know there’s a little process they’re going to have to go through, an adjustment period.”
LIFE AFTER LONDON: Perrantes, a four-year starter at point guard, helped the Wahoos advance to the NCAA tournament in each of four seasons. UVA reached the Sweet Sixteen when he was a freshman, the round of 32 when he was a sophomore, the Elite Eight when he was a junior, and the round of 32 in his final year.
“As the saying goes, London left this place a lot better than he found it, and that’s a great thing,” Bennett said. “I’m forever grateful for all these players that have come [through the program], and London’s been a huge part of it with his play and who he is.”
ON THE MEND: The Cavaliers’ best defender and leading rebounder in 2016-17 was 6-7 forward Isaiah Wilkins, who contracted an illness in late February that dramatically limited his effectiveness in the postseason.
In the NCAA tournament’s first round, Wilkins played only five minutes against UNC Wilmington, and he was held out of the Florida game. But he was cleared for spring workouts at UVA and held up well.
“Though it didn’t test as mono, it was a mono-like virus that just knocked him on his can for a long time,” Bennett said. “He lost weight. He just needed time to recover and rest, and it appears he’s gained most of his weight back and he’s feeling better and better and is excited about [playing again] and never wants to go through that again.”
Another UVA big man, 6-11 center Jack Salt, totaled eight points and a career-high 10 rebounds against Florida. Salt played with a bad back for the latter part of the season, and he focused this spring on getting healthy again.
“He’s a warrior, like Isaiah is,” Bennett said. “They both laid it on the line and weren’t well at the end of the year, and they’re recovering now, which is great.”
LATE ADDITION: Marco Anthony won’t be the only 2017 high school graduate joining Bennett’s program next month. Last week, UVA announced the signing of Francesco Baddochi, a 6-7 forward from Milan, Italy, who’s a senior at Bishop Miege High School in Mission, Kansas.
Baddochi’s mother is from Kansas and his father is from Italy. He moved in with an aunt and uncle in Kansas before the 2015-16 school year and enrolled at Bishop Miege. In 2016-17, Baddochi averaged 13.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocked shots as the Stags won their second straight state title.
He has long arms and excellent jumping ability, and he’s a good student.
“We really like Frankie’s long-range potential,” Bennett said, “with the success we’ve had with guys like Isaiah Wilkins and Akil Mitchell: players that are really quick on the defensive end, very alert and team-oriented.
“We realize that there’s a process of strength-gaining and all that, but we like some of his physical tools, and he has a nice upside. We’re encouraged. Everything’s positive.”
Bennett smiled. “He’s left-handed and he’s Italian, and I’m left-handed and I’m Italian, so that’s a good thing too.”
Anthony is a powerful 6-5 swingman from Holmes High School in San Antonio, Texas. He averaged 25.6 points per game in 2016-17. Anthony scored 30 or more points in nine games and 40 or more three times, with a season high of 46.
CONSTANTS: Bennett is heading into his ninth season at Virginia. For each of those years his assistant coaches have included Ron Sanchez and former UVA player Jason Williford. (Sanchez was promoted to associate head coach in July 2015.)
“That’s continuity,” Bennett said. “That’s why we’re good. They’ve had opportunities [to leave], but they know this is a good place, and they know we’ve got work to do, and we’re all excited about what’s coming.”
COMING SOON: An announcement is expected this month on the matchups for the 19th ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
UVA has an 11-6 record, including a three-game winning streak, in the Challenge. In each of the past two seasons, Virginia’s opponent has been Ohio State. In 2015, the `Hoos defeated the Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio. When they met in 2016-17 at JPJ, Virginia rallied for a 63-61 victory.
The Cavaliers will be at home in next season’s Challenge, too.