Five February takeaways from a good month for Virginia basketball
February was, overall, a good month for Virginia basketball. The Cavaliers finished the month 6-1, with the lone setback coming at the hands of Duke on Feb. 9. They made some history, too. Tony Bennett’s squad picked up three top-25 road wins — North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Louisville — in February to run its season total to five, an ACC record.
February, of course, is not the most important month of the season for a top team such as Virginia. March is. And if a team can get there, April is when the national champions lift the trophy.
But February is a very revealing month. Conference action is in full swing, teams are jockeying for position — in some cases to boost their NCAA tournament case, in Virginia’s case for a No. 1 seed — and figuring out and finalizing their rotations as they prepare for the month of madness that lies ahead. Here are some key takeaways from the month that’s been.
There’s been more Mamadi Diakite…
As has been written about plenty of times on this site, Mamadi Diakite’s improvement on both offense and defense has been the biggest change for a Virginia team that’s been pretty stable all year. After averaging fewer than 19 minutes per game over the season’s first three months, Diakite’s playing time jumped to more than 25 per game in February. Though he doesn’t always start, he is, for all intents and purposes, Virginia’s most-used and most important big man.
When Diakite is on his game as a versatile defender and opportunistic, skilled scorer, he adds an entire new dimension to what is already one of the best teams in the nation. Dikaite has the quickness to guard perimeter players and the length and leaping ability to guard interior players. That versatility is what allows Bennett to deploy Diakite as either the biggest player on the court or as the second-tallest, alongside Jay Huff — like he did against Louisville — or Jack Salt.
…which means less Jack Salt
Jack Salt is exactly the player that has helped Bennett build his system into what it is today. He works hard, he rarely makes mistakes and he does the little things right. But with Diakite coming on and Huff available as an offensive spark, Salt is having his minutes disappear. The fifth-year senior played fewer than 14 minutes per game in February, the fewest he’s averaged across an entire month since his freshman season. He scored just one point in his last three games combined. As teams have gone with more four-guard lineups with athletic, skilled big men, Salt’s bruising style has been phased out.
Jay Huff is getting more chances.
The offensive wunderkind that is Jay Huff started seeing chances in January but really emerged in February. The 7-foot-1 big man averaged double-digit minutes for an entire month for the first time in his career and took advantage of his increased time for the most part. Huff’s most important contribution was his 10-point first half at Louisville on Saturday that gave the Cavaliers hope amid the Cardinals’ three-point onslaught. He finished with 12 points, tying his ACC career high. Huff also had some nice moments late against Duke, when he hit two three-pointers in a Virginia comeback attempt that ultimately proved too little, too late.
While the month was a net positive for Huff, his grip on consistent playing time remains tenuous. There was a three-game stretch in the middle of the month when he played just 16 minutes combined, and he was still the third big man to appear Wednesday against Georgia Tech, even after a big game.
Ty Jerome appears healthy.
The most concerning part of Virginia’s season hasn’t been its two losses or, really, its on-court performance at any point of the year. Rather, the biggest scare was Ty Jerome’s back injury. The junior guard suffered a sprain against NC State in late January and then sat out the next contest, an underwhelming win against Miami. He spent the next few games going through abbreviated warm-ups and undergoing treatment. But Jerome now appears healthy, especially after a 19-point performance Wednesday against Georgia Tech. Keeping him that way will be of utmost importance for Virginia over the next few weeks.
De’Andre Hunter has become the go-to scorer, a role he’s filling as well as anyone in the nation.
In the second half against Louisville, De’Andre Hunter put the scoring load on his shoulders, obliterating the Louisville defense to 18 points to bring his game total to 26. On Wednesday, the Cavaliers used him heavily to break down an active Georgia Tech zone. Hunter is a worthy All-American candidate and an outstanding scorer at all three levels. What the Cavaliers missed last year was a go-to guy: someone who could simply get a bucket and/or get to the free throw line on any given possession. Hunter is that player this year.
Story by Zach Pereles