#13 Virginia coming apart at the seams? Not exactly

virginiaMuch discussion in the past 36 hours on the message boards has focused on what appears to be a growing divisiveness on the Virginia basketball team.

Statements by two team leaders, junior point guard London Perrantes and senior forward Anthony Gill, after Sunday’s loss at Florida State, to the effect that teammates needed to step up, and that some players weren’t buying into the program, have some folks reading the tea leaves.

I don’t buy it, the divisiveness narrative, though I do think a reading of the tea leaves can help us figure some things out about where this team is right now.

Coach Tony Bennett has been tweaking his rotations of late, very noticeably so, demoting Isaiah Wilkins and Darius Thompson from the starting five, and giving Marial Shayok a DNP Sunday.

The Cavs’ best stretch this season came with Wilkins in the starting frontcourt alongside Gill and Thompson in the backcourt with Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon, with Shayok the first guard off the bench.

Evan Nolte, who, God love ‘im, hasn’t made a shot from outside of two feet since the Eisenhower administration, got 14 minutes in the backcourt Sunday night (and, no, he didn’t score, missing all four of his shots from the field).

As I think about what is going on here, I’m reminded of a conversation that I had with Gill at the ACC Tournament two years ago. That was Gill’s first season at Virginia, after a redshirt year following his transfer from South Carolina.

Gill had been advertised to us the year before, in that redshirt year, as the best player on the team by none other than Joe Harris, high praise, to say the least.

If you remember, we didn’t see much of that out of Gill until early February, and then all of sudden, he was putting up double-digits every night, some nights carrying the Cavs.

I asked Gill what had happened that opened the floodgates. He told me that Bennett had taken him aside early that season, and if you remember, there was a several-game stretch in December where Gill barely got on the floor, and told him to focus on defense, and only when he figured out his role in the Pack-Line was he to start thinking about what he needed to do on offense.

The hot stretch for Gill began when he had the defense down enough that he didn’t have to think about it anymore, he told me.

Fast forward to right now. Wilkins and Shayok, I can’t explain, in the context of the Gill conversation from 2014, because they both played big minutes last year as freshmen, but I have to guess their reduced minutes has something to do with them not playing their roles on the defensive end.

Wilkins, in particular, had worked his way into the starting lineup because of his defense, but then Zach LeDay hitting awkward-as-hell threes happened in Blacksburg, and he found himself back fighting for minutes.

Shayok has been dealing with injury issues, so there could be something there that has nothing to do with D.

Thompson, though, like Gill was two years ago, a sophomore coming off a redshirt year, could be having some adjustment issues now that conference play has hit.

Virginia needs Thompson to be a key contributor, as he was earlier in the season, when he had a stretch of five games (including the wins over Villanova and West Virginia) with double-digits.

Over the last seven games, dating back to the Dec. 22 OT win over Cal, Thompson has scored just 3.9 points per game on 8-of-21 shooting.

Let me repeat that last part: Thompson has put up a grand total of 21 shots in the last seven games.

Brogdon, for a reference point, was 4-for-17 from the field Sunday night in the loss at FSU.

In the last three, Thompson has scored nine points on 2-of-3 shooting from the field in 50 minutes of floor time.

Looking back at Gill in his sophomore slump, he had a stretch of games beginning with a post-exam break win over Northern Iowa in which he played just eight minutes and didn’t score in which he two games in which he scored just one point and two others in which he scored just two running all the way to a Feb. 10 win over Maryland in which AG had one point on 0-of-2 shooting in 10 minutes.

Gill went for double-digits in eight of Virginia’s final 12, averaging 10.9 points per game and shooting 55.8 percent from the field.

When Perrantes and Gill tell the media that Virginia needs someone outside the Big Three to step up, and for guys to buy into the team concept, they’re talking specifically about Thompson, and they’re not trash-talking him, because they know that Thompson is a guy who can be the difference-maker for this team.

He had 11 on 4-of-4 shooting in the win over ‘Nova, 10 on 4-of-7 shooting in the win over WVU, 12 in Virginia’s only true road win, at Ohio State, on 5-of-8 shooting, to go with six assists (he ran the point that night, with Perrantes out).

DT needs to work himself through this rough stretch to become the fourth guy. All the veterans are doing with their public statements is making sure that it happens.

When it does, this team will hit another gear.

– Column by Chris Graham

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