By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When news broke last month that the FBI was investigating corruption in NCAA men’s basketball, Isaiah Wilkins didn’t worry for a second that his head coach at the University of Virginia, Tony Bennett, might be involved.
“I guarantee he lost no sleep that week,” Wilkins told reporters Wednesday at ACC Operation Basketball, the league’s annual preseason media gathering.
The 6-7 senior forward smiled.
“I lost some sleep,” Wilkins said. “I was like, `Man, everybody’s getting paid. Where’s my money at?’ ”
After the laughter from his audience subsided, Wilkins turned serious again. Bennett, who’s heading into his ninth season at UVA, and his assistants do “things the right way,” Wilkins said. “Those are good guys. They lost no sleep.”
In a panel discussion with several of his fellow coaches Wednesday, Bennett said, “There isn’t one solution to this, because there isn’t one problem. There’s many problems.
“Of course we want to win, we want to be to be great, there’s so many good things about the game. But this is about the welfare of the young men that we’re recruiting.
“What kind of message are we sending when this stuff happens? That’s my concern: the message we’re sending to them. We’re bringing young kids into this and saying this is kind of how it works.”
The ACC’s commissioner, John Swofford, addressed numerous topics during a press conference Wednesday in Charlotte, including the scandal that cost Louisville’s Hall of Fame head coach, Rick Pitino, his job.
“I’m not in position to say much about the ongoing federal and NCAA investigations, I do want to reiterate what I’ve said earlier,” Swofford said. “First, the charges filed by the federal government are truly disturbing to me, to our schools and all those connected to college athletics that are dedicated to following the rules.
“There’s still much to learn, but if found to be true, the individuals involved need to be held accountable. This is a serious situation where college athletics shouldn’t be … Today’s world is not yesterday’s world. We need to recognize that in finding solutions to improving the system. But integrity is timeless. It was critical yesterday, it’s critical today, it’ll be critical in the future. And whatever the system is, integrity is critical to its success.”
The NCAA has formed a commission to study problems in college basketball. The ACC wants to do its part to help clean up the game, Swofford said, and so the conference is forming a task force that UVA’s athletics director, Craig Littlepage, will lead.
Littlepage has deep roots in the college game. After playing at the University of Pennyslvania, he worked as a Division I assistant and head coach.
“Our goal will be to see if we can offer solutions to the NCAA commission, or at least ideas for them to consider and a process that may prove helpful to them as it completes its work,” Swofford said. “Our league needs to do our part in finding solutions to this and offering ideas that can lead us to solutions. And I’m confident with the leadership of that task force, we will hopefully be able to do that.”
Littlepage is retiring after 16 years as Virginia’s AD. His successor, Carla Williams, was introduced Monday in a press conference in Charlottesville.
STRONG DEBUT: In the Cavaliers’ annual Blue-White intrasquad scrimmage Sunday at John Paul Jones Arena, newcomer Nigel Johnson made 8 of 12 shots from the floor, including 4 of 6 from beyond the arc.
Johnson, a 6-1 guard, transferred to UVA this summer after graduating from Rutgers, where he averaged 11.3 points, 3.3 assists and 2.0 assists last season. Johnson shot 35 percent from 3-point range in 2016-17, hitting 43 of 123 attempts.
“I knew he could shoot it,” said UVA swingman Devon Hall, a fifth-year senior who played AAU ball with Johnson when they were teenagers.
“I didn’t know he was going to be shooting it at as high of a clip as he is now. I’m surprised, and it’s going to help us out a lot. So I’m looking forward to finding him wherever he’s at and making the extra pass.”
Johnson, who’s from Northern Virginia, is living with two teammates this school year: Wilkins and redshirt junior Jack Salt. Johnson has been a welcome addition to the team, and not only on the court.
“Off the court, that’s a funny dude,” Wilkins said. “He came in and fit in perfectly. He has all the jokes and he teases people. He’s a great guy. He’s my roommate, too. He’s a clean guy. I appreciate that. He does the dishes. He’s way better than Jack Salt [in that regard]. You can write that down.”
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: The Cavaliers’ breakthrough season under Bennett came in 2013-14, when they won the ACC tournament for only the second time in program history.
The only player from that team who’s still on the roster is Devon Hall, a 6-5 graduate student from Virginia Beach. Hall redshirted in 2013-14, when the Wahoos’ standouts included seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell.
“That was valuable for me to be able to see that,” Hall said. “That was kind of the beginning of the culture [for which Bennett’s program has become known].”
At last year’s ACC Operation Basketball, London Perrantes and Wilkins accompanied Bennett to Charlotte. The Cavaliers’ representatives this year were Wilkins and Hall.
“I’ve been [in the program] for a while, so being able to come here is an honor,” Hall said, “and coming here and being able to represent UVA and the ACC in this way is cool.”
BAND OF BROTHERS: That Wilkins and Hall enjoy each other’s company was clear throughout their time in Charlotte this week. They share a similar bond with their teammates.
This “probably feels like one of the closer teams I’ve had at this point,” Bennett said. “Now, what will test that is when you get into the season and [compete for] playing time. Though a lot of people will be playing, playing time is maybe not quite what they [are hoping for]. You go through some difficult situations.
“That always tests that bond. But we really have strong leadership at the top. And they do love life. And I’ve watched them do things behind the scenes that speak to what they’re about, just in the community, that no one knows, no cameras are there, and they’re doing things that have been really powerful.
“So there’s a good moral fiber on this team. We’ve been fortunate that way. But they’re really going above and beyond even some other teams to make a difference in our community. And I love that about them.”
WORK IN PROGRESS: In terms of athleticism and raw talent, Mamadi Diakite probably stands alone in Bennett’s program. He’s a 6-9, 228-pound redshirt sophomore who averaged 3.8 points and 2.6 rebounds and blocked 39 shots in his 32 games last season.
To come close to reaching his potential, though, Diakite must become more consistent. He sparkled during the first week of practice this month, then fell off.
“Now it’s just about stringing days together,” Wilkins said. “Consistency is a big thing that we talk about. I talk to him a lot one on one, just because we’re [playing] the same position and I can relate to him. I try to get him on my team in practice just so I can hype him up and keep him locked in.”
Diakite (pronounced Dee-ah-key-tay) moved to the United States from Guinea in January 2014 and enrolled at Blue Ridge School, not far from Charlottesville. He spoke four languages fluently — French, Malinke, Soussou and Peul — before arriving in the U.S. He began learning English in earnest when he enrolled at Blue Ridge.
On the court, Diakite is still “trying to get to that consistency,” Bennett said. “Yes, he’s in his second year as a player, he’s a third-year student], but if you look at his basketball age, it’s real young.”
The peaks and valleys in Diakite’s game are not uncommon for inexperienced players, Bennett said. “We’ve got to make sure he’s not divided in his mind. If guys are uncertain what they’re supposed to do [that affects their play]. But if they can just play and be freed up and they’ll embrace what they’re supposed to do, I think then a guy like Mamadi can be at his best.”
With Wilkins sidelined by an illness, Diakite played a career-high 29 minutes in Virginia’s season-ending loss to Florida in the NCAA tournament’s second round. He finished with nine points, six rebounds and one block.
STEADY GROWTH: Coming out of Cape Henry Collegiate in Virginia Beach, Hall was not known for his perimeter shooting. But countless hours in the gym have paid off for him.
As a redshirt freshman in 2014-15, Hall attempted only 15 shots from beyond the 3-point arc, making five of them. He was 21 of 63 (33.3 percent) from long range in 2015-16 and 32 of 86 (37.2 percent) last season.
“Confidence and reps,” Hall said. “I’ve always had a good form. There was not too much funky stuff messing with my shot.”
Hall averaged a career-best 8.4 points per game last season. But in Virginia’s 2016-17 finale, a 65-39 loss to Florida, he struggled.
“I had zero points and I fouled out,” Hall said. “That’s the worst game I’ve ever played in my career. It’s frustrating, but you take a look back and you learn from any experience.”
He learned, Hall said, that “I’m resilient and I’ll be able to bounce back from anything. Even though that’s the worst game that I’ve played ever in my life, I’ll be able to bounce back. There’s another season ahead.”
Virginia opens Nov. 10 against UNC Greensboro at JPJ.
Anthony is a 6-4, 228-pound swingman from San Antonio, Texas. Baddochi, who goes by Frankie, is a 6-7, 185-pound forward who grew up in his native Italy.
As an 11th-grader, Baddochi (pronounced Baa-Dokey) came to the United States to live with relatives, and he helped Bishop Miege High in Mission, Kansas, win state titles in 2015-16 and 2016-17. He had surgery on his right kneecap not long after arriving in Charlottesville and will redshirt this season.
Baddochi, an explosive leaper, has steadily increased his workload this fall and hopes to be cleared soon to practice with his new teammates.
In the meantime, Wilkins said, he and Badocchi “have a lot of conversations. I just pick his brain, like, `How are you as a player?’ I’ve never seen him play. So I’m just like, `How are you? Are you aggressive? What’s your demeanor?’ Hopefully I’m setting a good example for him.”