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Not ready for prime time: UVA still searching for identity after sluggish opening win

uva basketballThe pollsters are probably right. The UVA team that beat UNC Greensboro Friday night in its season opener isn’t a Top 25 team, and right now, isn’t close.

The Spartans were a 25-win team a year ago, so, yeah, not exactly chopped liver, but they’re still a SoCon team, ranked 164th in the preseason KenPom.com national ratings.

Who outrebounded Virginia, outscored them in the paint, and were able to make it interesting late, cutting a 19-point second-half deficit to eight, two different times, before the ‘Hoos were able to hold on for a 60-48 win.

What vexed the Cavs was familiar to fans who saw their team struggle last season to put points on the board.

After a Mamadi Diakite jumper made it 40-21 with 14:24 to go, Virginia would score just six points over the next 9:25, shooting 2-of-8 from the floor, 2-of-2 from the line and turning the ball over six times over a 15-possession stretch that allowed the Spartans to creep back in.

Kyle Guy looked good, at least in the first half, scoring 14 of his 16 points in the first 20 minutes, notably getting to the line eight times, playing through a bad back suffered in a weekend scrimmage.


Devon Hall, a fifth-year senior, had his expected solid night, scoring 13, though he also had four turnovers and four fouls.

Noticeable in his absence was heralded redshirt freshman Jay Huff, who didn’t get into the game, and according to coach Tony Bennett, it was because of concerns related to Huff’s ability to keep up with UNCG’s bigs.

News flash: no offense to UNCG’s bigs, but they’re not in the ACC for a reason, meaning if Huff isn’t up to snuff to keep up with them on the defensive end in Bennett’s mind, it’s hard to imagine the role he will be able to play when the schedule gets tougher.

Another touted redshirt freshman, DeAndre Hunter, looked overmatched in his 10 minutes, going scoreless, bricking on his lone three-point attempt, putting up the only negative among the eight ‘Hoos who played in plus/minus (-3).

Nigel Johnson, the grad transfer from Rutgers, seemed out of place at times, but came up big down the stretch, scoring on a high-screen play after a timeout after UNC Greensboro had cut the deficit to eight, then bookending the 9-0 run that helped put the game away with a floater that pushed the lead to 17 with 2:56 left.

Still at question: how this team will be able to score when the jump shots aren’t falling, as they weren’t Friday night. Virginia was 4-of-16 from three-point range, and just 6-of-12 on shots at the rim, with the bigs, in 79 minutes of playing time, going just 1-of-5 from the field in the paint.

The defense was what you’d expect, largely. UNCG shot 29.4 percent, was just 4-of-26 from three-point range, and had its two leading scorers, Marvin Smith and Francis Alonso, shoot a combined 5-of-24 from the floor.

Defense should be ahead of offense this early in the season. And again, no offense to the folks at UNCG, but UNCG isn’t VCU, it’s not Wisconsin, West Virginia, North Carolina, Duke. You should have good results defensively against UNCG. Nothing to brag about there.

Not really a lot to brag about really across the board for UVA after the opener. This is a team with some talent, maybe not as much talent as some of us wanted to think, and either way, it has a lot of work to do.

Column by Chris Graham

  • Rob Wagner

    How lost did Virginia look on offense. Like i always say, Jack Salt played hard. He’s not a 15 point guy but he at least mixes it up. The criticism he gets on the message boards is not fair. Diakite looked tentative but so did Jerome and honestly Hall played not great. He absolutely didn’t step up when UVA needed a senior basket. It’s frustrating to see him still essentially being a role player. I sure hope Hunter was just nervous because WHOA he looked like a guy who had never played basketball before.

    • No one seemed willing or able to step up to be the leader, except maybe Nigel Johnson, late. I thought it was interesting that Bennett ran a play for Johnson out of the timeout around five minutes to go, up eight, a simple high screen to free up Johnson, who lost his dribble, then picked it back up at midcourt, dribbled to the rim, and hit the lefty layup.

      Guy seemed assertive in the first half, and in his defense, he is playing with a bad back. I liked seeing him taking the ball into the lane to get to the line. He shot eight free throws last night, after shooting 35 in 32 games last season.

      UVA has no post game. If Jay Huff isn’t able to get on the floor against UNCG, we have been oversold on his talent.

      • Len Ponder

        And as a writer who covers UVA, you and the others give Tony a free ride on the Jay Huff issue. Hell, I know more about Jay and his trip to Eastern Europe with AIA back in June because I contacted the AIA coach, who is an assistant at Valparaiso- Coach Gore- and received emails after the 5 games they played giving short reports on Jay. I love what Bennett has done but you guys consistently throw him softballs. And the fact that Bennett has had Jay for 18 months and still cannot find a way to play him against UNCG just blows me away. And just for your edification, Chris, I was in Spain last summer and saw all five games so I have seen Dre and Jay play. It hardly surprises me that recruiting is in the toilet if you look at the Huff situation alone. And the schemes and personnel excuse Bennett used is scary. I watched Austin Peay- Vanderbilt today and AP starts 4 guys 6’5 or smaller with a 6’7or 6’8 “ Post man and jacks threes whenever they can. You think Jay plays Monday? How about Savannah State or Hampton? Do you really see much time for Jay by January? Sorry for the rant but I was totally disgusted last night and by Bennett’s equivocation.

        • Rob Wagner

          That was a rant all right.

          • Priv

            I’ve got to agree with Len. IMO, Tony REALLY dropped the ball with Jay Huff on Friday. After sitting out all of last season Jay had to be absolutely chomping at the bit to see some action in a real game. I thought Tony’s excuse for not playing him was pretty lame. If he wasn’t so in love with Wilkins and Salt, he could have found a way to get Jay some meaningful minutes. Otherwise, if Jay truly isn’t up to this (lower) level of competition compared to what UVa is going to see as the season progresses, then we have been fed a crock of manure on Jay’s ability and potential – which I don’t believe for a minute. I don’t care if Austin Peay plays 4 super quick pygmies and a big who moves at the speed of light, Tony needs to get Jay on the court early and often on Monday night (for the sake of both the kid and the team). If he doesn’t, it will undermine Jay’s confidence and make a mockery of what Tony preaches about being willing to wait your turn to play. After sitting out a year, it’s time to let the young man prove what he can do to help the team and the program going forward. The games aren’t going to get any easier from here, and as Chris said in his piece, UVa needed (and will continue to need) more offensive firepower than what they showed on Friday night. Yeah, the guys surely had more than their share of Opening Night jitters, but that’s all the more reason to throw Jay into the mix and let him get his out of the way as well. Sorry for the rant, but I’m extremely frustrated by Tony’s decision not to play Jay Huff (especially in this game), and his excuse/reasoning didn’t hold much water with me. I’d be interested to hear Chris’ opinion about this issue, if he’s willing to chime in on the subject. I also think Len is right when he mentions the possibility that the failure to play Jay Huff sends a chilling message to talented recruits who may be considering UVa. And their parents and coaches as well. The opposite of what we should be doing, if you ask me.

          • Rob Wagner

            Dude it’s one game. Relax

          • Len ponder

            It’s not just one game. This whole redshirt of good players, you get pulled if you make mistakes on the floor and totally moribund offensive strategies all are reasons our recruiting is going to hell. The game is changing and although Tony may consistently win 20-23 games a year the truth is that 2 or 3 Star players don’t make deep runs to the final four.

      • Priv

        “If Jay Huff isn’t able to get on the floor against UNCG, we may have been oversold on his talent.”

        I think Jay proved tonight that Friday’s oversight on Tony’s part was a coaching choice/mistake, not a talent issue. Both Jay and Dre Hunter showed their potential in Monday night’s game. Granted Austin Peay isn’t UNC or Duke, but it’s clear that both of those young men have a huge upside. This year’s team is really quite young but very skilled. If they stick together for the next two or three years I believe their ceiling is extremely high going forward.