I wanted to write this article the day after the University of Virginia basketball team lost to Iowa at the end of last season and send it in as an Op-Ed to The Daily Progress, but I figured that no one reads print media anymore so I shelved it until now.
The 2012-2013 season for UVa was, in a word, fair. True, back to back 20+ win seasons is a major step up for a program who saw its glory days back when Bananarama was scorching the airwaves, but their record in the ACC last year (11-7) was lackluster at best. Finishing fifth in an elite conference is nothing to sneeze at, especially with such a young team, but add Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame into the mix this season and that fifth place finish will look more like eighth place.
As cynical as I am about UVa basketball, I walked away from last season with an unfamiliar feeling: hope. We did that well last season with a predominantly freshman/sophomore team? We beat Duke, and rather handily at that. And yes, we lost in the quarterfinals of a tournament held to determine the 69th best team in the country, but I vividly remember losing to Bradley at home in the CBI six seasons and two coaches ago. For those of you who were unaware that the CBI tournament existed, congratulations! That means your team has never been bad enough to miss the NIT.
That feeling of hope was fleeting, however, as I immediately remembered that historically UVa has the amazing ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Two examples come to mind, because I think of them almost constantly:
1) In 1982, ranked #1 and with one of the greatest college players of all time, UVa lost to Chaminade in what is still considered one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history.
2) In the 2001-2002 season UVa started the season 9-0 and was ranked as high as #5 in the country before finishing the season 8-12 and missing the NCAA tournament. (If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go throw up).
So many things can go wrong between the end of last season and the start of this one. Paul Jesperson transferred away because no one would cable link their Gameboy Color with his, leaving him with no one to battle in Pokémon (I’m assuming that’s why he left). Akil Mitchell has already broken his hand, and we’re not even through July yet. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear next week that Joe Harris is leaving the team to pursue an understudy role in an off-Broadway production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” When you live your life expecting the worst from your team, it’s hard to be optimistic of the future.
But I’ll give it the old college try. There are a few assets UVa has that are cause for excitement/furor/breath holding. I will break them down individually:
Joe Harris is coming off a great season. First team All-ACC, 16.9 ppg (fourth in the ACC), and a dominating 36 pt. performance against Duke cemented him as THE guy for UVa. The team wins and loses around him. Which became a problem towards the end of the season. It felt like Joe used up all of his energy in the Duke win (Understandably. If Ryan Kelly is as uncomfortable as he looks, I’d bet that prolonged eye contact with him could knock someone out for weeks), because he looked tired down the stretch (He averaged only 12.1 ppg in the final seven games and never broke 15 pts.).
It’s understandable that he could get worn down at the end of a 35-game season. He’s already suffered a setback this offseason with a stress fracture in his foot, and hopefully he’ll take the time off to fully recover from that. Harris made the jump from a good shooter to a great scorer last season, opening up his off-the-ball game and becoming a better slasher. Let’s hope he continues to improve. Fortunately, (hopefully?) he’ll be getting more help this season from the younger guys.
The veteran. The window cleaner. The man with the broken hand… Despite his very recent (and aforementioned) injury, I still think Akil Mitchell is the best athlete on the team. He showed it last season, too. He was second in scoring (13.1 ppg) and, at only 6-foot-8, led the team in rebounds (8.9 rpg) and double-doubles (12). His efforts earned him a Third Team All-ACC nod, as well. Akil’s biggest issue, to me, is health. He’s dealing with the broken hand at the moment, but last season he had his run of nicks and bruises. It’s rough down there in the post, and I think the development of Mike Tobey as an offensive threat (of which he is capable) will take some of the strain away from him. I think he needs to become even more of a double-double guy; a less muscular Travis Watson, if you will.
Justin, if you’re reading this, I love you. I’m not afraid to say it. Anderson is the rare combination (at least at UVa) of talent and physical freakishness (It’s a word. Spell check confirmed it). At the end of last season he was, without a doubt, the most fun player to watch at all times. During the second half of the Iowa game, Anderson came from (read: leapt from) the weak side and blocked a shot with so much force I thought the ref was going to call the game And1 Mixtape style. I distinctly remember saying, “That was the greatest block I have ever seen.”
His downside last year, however, was that he played like a freshman. Understandable. He was, in fact, a freshman. Hopefully this offseason he is learning the college game (studying film, learning from practice, what have you) and he’ll eliminate this one major flaw in his game. He has the potential to be a star this season. You heard it from me first, if Justin Anderson plays all four years they will retire his number. I think he’s that talented.
Quick! Name all the great big men UVa has had in the past 30 years. Everyone should have gotten Ralph Sampson. Younger fans will remember Travis Watson (who was undersized and had a reprehensible senior season), and the older individuals with a good memory will remember Olden Polynice (Fun fact: Polynice is widely regarded as one of the ugliest players in NBA history. How is that for notable alumni?).
You can’t name any more of them because there haven’t been any. UVa has been plagued with terrible bigs. I remember at the age of five thinking, “Why can’t Chase Metheney play in the post? He’s over seven feet tall.” Elton Brown, Watson’s alleged successor, was, as my dad called him, “a cheeseburger head.” UVa even looked for hidden talent overseas with Tunji Soroye and Assane Sene, but the lack of real basketball experience for both of them (and Sene’s permanent suspension from the team) proved to be too much.
Finally. Finally we have a true big man with actual ability. With limited minutes (13.9 mpg) and experience last year as a freshman Tobey only averaged 6.8 points and 2.9 rebounds per game, but watching him on the court it was impossible to miss his potential. He’s tall (6-foot-11) and he has actual offensive skills. There’s a hint of grace to his footwork, he doesn’t move like a seven-footer. There is one thing that he needs to improve on, though, if he wants to be any good: size. At 6-foot-11 he’s only listed at 227 pounds He is six inches taller than me and even I have 13 lbs. on him (some of that can be attributed to heft on my part, though). Hopefully, as you’re reading this, he is lifting weights, and hopefully he does not leave that weight room until the season starts.
The point guard position is a bit up in the air this year. With the graduation of Jontel Evans, UVa loses a key defensive presence (He was ACC first defensive team). However, Evans lacked one key offensive trait, scoring ability. Every time Jontel spotted up for a 3 everyone in the gym cringed. He averaged more assists per game (4.8) than points (4.2). Sophomore point guard Teven Jones showed more offensive ability last season, though his minutes were spotty. UVa also has two point guard prospects coming in this season; 6-foot-1 London Perrantes from from Encino, California (I hope he likes the nickname “Encino Man” because I have a feeling someone is going to try to start that); and 6-foot-5 Devon Hall from Virginia Beach, Virginia. The idea of having a 6-foot-5 floor general entices me. If UVa can get a collective ppg of +6 from the three of them I’ll consider this a win. The defense can be made up elsewhere.
The good news about this year is that UVa should have a pretty deep bench, which will be new for them. If your brain hasn’t erased the trauma of that NCAA first round shellacking to Florida from 2011-2012 you’ll remember that UVa went into that game with seven eligible players (6.5 if you correct for Harris’ broken hand). Evan Nolte should continue to improve and hopefully will move past the recurring disappearing act he performed in the second half of last season. Darion Atkins, who was hurt for a lot of last season, never seemed comfortable at game speed. You’ve got to think that will change once he gets more minutes. Malcolm Brogdon, who had a medical redshirt last season due to foot surgery, will be a big addition to the line-up.
If there is one aspect of UVa basketball in which I have had unwavering confidence over the past few seasons it’s the coaching staff. Tony Bennett is a great coach and not once have I wondered if he actually knows what he’s doing (As opposed to the Leitao years, where I wondered that incessantly). UVa’s offensive scheme may seem “boring” or “slow” to the untrained eye, but I love the fact that Bennett has a commitment to actual offensive execution. And the defense, oh the “Packline” defense may be the sexiest thing I have ever seen. There is no better feeling than repeatedly holding teams to 50 points or less (that happened eleven times last season). UVa may have been 259th in points per game but they were in the top five in scoring defense.
At this point I will proceed with crossing my fingers, holding my breath, sacrificing whatever my God sees fit, and praying that I didn’t just jinx UVa basketball. Because UVa fans know, if there were ever a team that could be jinxed it would be the Cavaliers. I just hope no one else jumps ship…