Bigger issue for UVA basketball: Replacing Justin Anderson or Darion Atkins?

uva-basketball newBasketball writers had UVA at the top of the way, way, way too early polls looking at the 2015-2016 season, predicated upon the assumption that guard Justin Anderson would return for his senior season.

When Anderson declared for the NBA draft, the Cavs’ stock dropped, not much, as reflected in the USA Today coaches poll rendering that has Virginia sixth nationally.

It won’t be easy to replace Anderson, both in terms of his offensive production – 12.2 points per game, 45.2 percent shooting from three-point range – and the role he played as an emotional sparkplug and team leader.

Might it be harder, though, for Virginia to figure out a workaround for the loss of Darion Atkins, who didn’t necessarily fill up the stat sheet in 2014-2015 – putting in 7.6 points per game, 6.0 rebounds per game and 1.1 blocks per game – but was the heart and soul of the Pack-Line D?

“Justin and Darion brought things that were special. They could defensively erase mistakes,” UVA coach Tony Bennett told reporters on Wednesday at the program’s preseason Media Day. “Darion could block shots, Justin could do that in transition. I think it puts a premium on us defensively to be sounder and in better position because you know you don’t have guys like that.”

Anderson made the highlight plays, but he recorded just 14 blocks in 2014-2015, 0.5 blocks per game. It was Atkins on the back end sliding over to block and alter shots and in the post taking his man straight up and providing help in the Pack-Line’s post-to-post doubles that anchored the defense.

With Atkins gone, Anthony Gill is now the best post defender. Gill has, to say the least, come a long way, from seeing his minutes reduced until late in his sophomore season because he was struggling to pick up the Pack-Line to being named to the Coaches All-ACC Defensive Team as a junior.

Gill conceded Wednesday that he would have never thought he would have heard of himself being referred to as a tough post defender.

“I really worked hard at it, and it’s something that I really pride myself on now,” said Gill, who led Virginia in rebounding in 2014-2015 (6.5 rebounds per game). “I don’t want to take any plays off defensively, because I want to help my team as much as I can. It’s something that I really want to be good at. I want people to say, Man, I’ve got to try to score the ball against Anthony Gill. I want everybody in the ACC to say, Oh, I’ve got to go up against Anthony Gill this game, that’s not what I want to do. That’s something I pride myself on.”

But Gill isn’t going to block a ton of shots – he recorded 16 blocks in 2014-2015. That figure was two less than the 18 registered by reserve Isaiah Wilkins as a freshman last year.

Wilkins earned more and more time as the season went on because of his energy on the defensive end.

“He’s not maybe as much a post defender, as physical, but he’s very active,” Bennett said of Wilkins, who is likely to be the first post player off the bench in 2015-2016.

“Isaiah has that ability, Akil used to do it, he can re-route a dribbler when they’re ball-screening. He’s very sound and in position. He’s a very good help defender. He can pick up charges, he’s always plugging gaps, doing those kinds of things.”

Position defense is the key to the Pack-Line anyway. Virginia was middle of the pack in the ACC last season in team blocked shots – with 143, 49 less than league leader Louisville’s 192.

Accounting for the graduation of Atkins will be about playing better team defense, which is what the Pack-Line is all about in the first place.

“We have to make up for it just being in position, being a little more experienced, everywhere all around defensively, because we don’t have a guy like Darion,” Bennett said.

– Story by Chris Graham

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