By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Tony Bennett saw sophomore guard Kyle Guy down on the court at John Paul Jones Arena, clutching his left knee late in the first half Saturday, the University of Virginia’s head men’s basketball coach feared the worst for a few anxious moments.
“You don’t know,” Bennett said Monday at JPJ.
But Guy, a first-team All-ACC selection, was cleared to return to the game Saturday — UVA closed the regular season with a win over Notre Dame — and he practiced Monday morning at JPJ with a brace on his left knee.
“Thankfully, it’s just a sprained [medial collateral ligament],” said Guy, the Cavaliers’ leading scorer (13.9 ppg). “It hurts like hell, but I should be good to go on Thursday.”
UVA (28-2), the nation’s top-ranked team, is the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament, which starts Tuesday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. The Wahoos, who earned a double bye as one of the top four seeds, will play in the first ACC quarterfinal Thursday at noon, against No. 8 Florida State or No. 9 Louisville.
As a freshman, when he was listed at 165 pounds, the 6-2 Guy wore down in the postseason. After scoring 20 points in Virginia’s first game at the ACC tournament, a win over Pittsburgh, he went scoreless the next day in a loss to Notre Dame.
In the Cavaliers’ two games in the NCAA tourney, he totaled five points.
Guy gained 10 pounds in the offseason and believes he’s better prepared this year for the physical and mental grind of the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
“I learned a lot about how the intensity picks up [in the postseason],” Guy said. “Don’t get me wrong: Every [regular-season] game is a grind, but there’s just another feel to it when we get to the ACC and NCAA tournaments.”
Guy said his treatment consists of “rest, ice, and stretching other parts of my leg so they’re strengthened. I should be good to go on Thursday. I felt really good today.”
“I think it’s pretty cool,” said Wilkins, who received 42 of the 57 votes cast for the award by ACC head coaches and media members.
“I’m really thankful for it, because it’s something that I’ve always wanted since my first year, seeing D.A. and Malcolm get recognized. It does mean a lot to me.”
The 6-7 Wilkins has taken a team-high 11 charges and has 36 steals this season, second only to sophomore guard Ty Jerome at UVA. Among ACC players, he ranks 10th in blocked shots and 17th in rebounding. But statistics don’t fully reflect his value in Virginia’s Pack Line defense.
“He has an awareness, and you can just see the way his mind and his eyes are on the court,” Bennett said. “He’s always looking for areas he can help, and he’ll make just instinctual plays and dive on the floor. The combination of the heart and anticipation and all that is good. There’s so many different moments in games where he’s made the difference.”
After practicing Monday, the Cavaliers had a film session during which Bennett, as he often does, singled out Wilkins for his defensive prowess.
“On three out of the 20 plays we watched, it was, ‘I wish you guys were born with what Isaiah has,’ ” Guy said, laughing.
With Virginia leading 59-57 in the final minute Saturday, Wilkins poked the ball away from Notre Dame star Bonzie Colson. That led to a shot-clock violation for the Fighting Irish with 23.1 seconds left, and UVA went on to win 62-57.
“That’s what [Virginia’s defense is] supposed to look like,” Wilkins said. “If you were to make a clip of what we want to do, that would be it, I feel like.”
The ACC’s all-defensive team also includes Wilkins’ teammate Devon Hall, a 6-5 fifth-year senior guard.
“It’s an honor,” Hall said. “I take pride in what I do on the defensive end. I don’t do this alone, though. This is a group effort when it comes to our defense.”
UVA leads the nation in scoring defense (52.8 ppg).
CLOSING TIME: In balloting for ACC Sixth Man of the Year, UVA redshirt freshman De’Andre Hunter received 39 votes. No other player received more than seven.
A 6-7 forward from Philadelphia, Hunter is averaging 9.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 20 minutes per game. He has yet to start for the ‘Hoos, but he’s become a fixture on the court at the end of tight games.
“Coach’s trust is hard to gain,” Hunter said Monday, “so if I gain that and he trusts me enough to have me in at the end of the game, I like that a lot.”
Hunter’s last-second 3-pointer Thursday night lifted UVA to a stunning 67-66 win over Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center. To say his phone has blown up since then would be an understatement.
“It’s been crazy,” Hunter said. “A lot of messages. A lot of unknown people.”
HEARTBREAK: About 70 miles south of Charlottesville in Lynchburg, the Liberty University men’s basketball team has multiple connections to Bennett’s program at UVA, starting with head coach Ritchie McKay.
Bennett watched the TV broadcast of the Big South championship game Sunday afternoon and saw second-seeded Radford, playing at home, defeat fifth-seeded Liberty on a last-second 3-pointer.
“I thought both those teams played terrific,” Bennett said. “Those are good teams.”
McKay was Virginia’s associate head coach for Bennett’s first six seasons in Charlottesville. Two of McKay’s assistant coaches, Brad Soucie and Vic Sfera, also worked for Bennett for UVA, and Liberty’s director of player development, Marcus Conrad, and director of operations, Chelsea Mangino, are former student-managers for the Cavaliers. Another former UVA student-manager, Mikey Carpenter, is an academic advisor in Liberty’s athletics department.
“Ritchie took ’em all,” Bennett said, laughing.
Mangino’s father, Larry, is UVA’s director of scouting/recruiting, and Carpenter’s brother, Johnny, is the Cavaliers’ technology assistant.
Bennett, who starred at guard for Wisconsin-Green Bay, made one appearance in the NCAA tournament as a player. He knows well the unrelenting pressure that accompanies conference tournaments in one-bid leagues such as the Big South.
“Obviously, I was really impressed with the job that Ritchie and that staff did and how hard those young men played,” Bennett said.
PATIENCE REWARDED: Hall is the only player remaining in the program from the UVA team that in 2013-14 swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles. Since redshirting that season, he’s seen his role steadily grow.
In addition to making the ACC’s all-defensive team this season, Hall was a second-team all-conference selection. He’s started 84 consecutive games as a Cavalier.
In an era when many athletes want instant gratification, Hall embraced a different philosophy.
“He’s been faithful to the process and getting better, and he’s one of our hardest workers,” Bennett said. “He handles success very well, and he handles frustration or failure or adversity very well. That’s why I think he’s so steady. He’s real unselfish.
“He’s got a good way about him, too. I marvel at that. But his maturity, with his willingness to work and not get too shook if it didn’t happen right away, was remarkable in today’s day and age.”
In 2014, at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum, Virginia defeated Florida State, Pitt and then Duke to capture the ACC tournament for the first time since 1976.
“It was great, man,” Hall recalled Monday. “That was great for me to able to experience that, even though I wasn’t playing, just give me a little feeling of what I wanted to see in my future. Hopefully we can do that [again] this year.”
On the advice he’s given to his younger teammates about the postseason, Hall said, “To be honest, I don’t think I have to say much to these guys. These guys know what’s at stake. You’re pretty much one-and-done when it comes to this. So I don’t think I have to say too much. We do a good job of making sure everybody’s on the same page.”
WORK IN PROGRESS: Those younger Cavaliers include 6-9 Mamadi Diakite, a redshirt sophomore from Guinea who’s averaging 5.2 points per game.
In the regular-season finale against Notre Dame, Diakite came off the bench to contribute nine points, two rebounds and one block in 19 minutes.
“I know I have more room to grow,” Diakite said Monday. “I’m not satisfied with the way I’m playing exactly. It’s good. I’m getting from point A to point B, but I know there’s a long way to go, and I know I can get there. And so I’m trying to do everything that I can in my power to help the team achieve what they need to achieve. I’m talking about championships.
“Of course, [that means] having great games and bringing it on the defensive side. Not only the offensive side. You can have a good game without even scoring two points.”
NO SMALL FEAT: The Cavaliers, who came into the season unranked, received every first-place vote in The Associated Press poll released Monday.
“That’s awesome,” said Jerome, a third-team All-ACC selection. “I’m not going to say we don’t pay attention to it at all, because to go from unranked to No. 1 now, it really is a great accomplishment. But it’s time to put it behind us now.”
Like his classmate Guy, the 6-5 Jerome said he’s more able this year to handle the physical demands of the postseason.
“I feel stronger,” Jerome said. “I feel better. I didn’t know how this season would end up turning out, especially how my body would feel at this point, because I played about 30-plus minutes a game in the ACC [this season]. I didn’t do that last year.
“So this season was definitely more of a wear and tear, but I feel great. I don’t know if it’s my adrenaline, because I’m so excited for this time of the year, but I feel great.”