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How good is this Virginia basketball team? Good, damn good

uva-basketball-practiceVirginia senior Mike Tobey picked up his second foul with 12:32 left in the first half. He’d checked in for Isaiah Wilkins, who started Saturday against #12 Villanova, as coach Tony Bennett looked to keep his frontcourt guys fresh against the Wildcats.

Evan Nolte had just checked in 11 seconds earlier for the other post starter, Anthony Gill.

Jack Salt was not available Saturday, so unless Bennett wanted to cut Wilkins’ or Gill’s breaks short, he had only one other frontcourt option, little-used freshman Jerred Reuter.

Bennett went with Reuter, whose time on the floor has been spotty, with two DNP-Coach’s Decisions this season, and just 15 minutes of playing time combined in the Cavs’ last four games.

Reuter would get only two minutes of action on Saturday, but he did what Bennett needed him to do. Twenty-one seconds after checking in, he grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a putback.

Bennett went 10 deep in the first half in the 86-75 win, and seven ‘Hoos scored, and everybody contributed something to the cause.

“We had to try and wear them down,” Bennett said, and that’s the key to Bennett’s approach.

The scary thing to consider is how much deeper this team is than last year’s team, which started 19-0, got to 28-1 and was a Final Four favorite, but went off the rails when Justin Anderson, now in the NBA, went down to injury in February, testing the depth of the roster.

Nolte ended up getting the starter minutes in place of Anderson, with then-freshmen Marial Shayok and Devon Hall not considered ready for the extra minutes, and Darius Thompson sitting out his transfer year.

Thompson has stepped in as the starter and is putting up solid numbers – 8.7 points per game, 58.9 percent shooting from the field and 45.0 percent shooting from three.

Hall (5.1 points per game in 19.5 minutes per game) and Shayok (4.8 points per game in 16.8 minutes per game) are solid options off the bench in the backcourt, stepping in for Thompson and established starters Malcolm Brogdon (17.2 points, 3.0 assists per game) and London Perrantes (11.5 points, 3.7 assists per game) almost interchangeably.

Nolte, who started 11 games last season, is having a hard time getting off the bench, getting just 6.9 minutes per game in 2015-2016, splitting his time between the backcourt and playing stretch four.

In the frontcourt, the emergence of Wilkins, a sophomore, is starting to account for the loss of Darion Atkins (7.6 points per game, 6.0 rebounds per game, 51.1 percent shooting in 2014-2015). Wilkins is averaging 6;2 points and 4.0 rebounds in 22.6 minutes per game in his last five games, and shooting 57.1 percent from the floor.

Wilkins is an intriguing talent, with energy and athleticism approaching the level of Atkins, and hints of offensive talent akin to what Mike Scott displayed a few years ago in Charlottesville, with a jump shot out to the three-point line and ability to drive and finish at the rim.

He’s a clear second fiddle in the post to Gill, a senior who is putting up crazy numbers – 14.3 points per game on 8.4 field-goal attempts per game, 60.7 percent from the field, 77.4 percent from the line, 6.5 rebounds per game, just six turnovers in 10 games in 2015-2016.

The one question mark thus far has been Tobey, the 2015 ACC Sixth Man of the Year, who just hasn’t been able to nail down a starting job. He’s shooting 55.6 percent from the field, averaging 6.9 points and 4.1 rebounds per game in 16.1 minutes per game, but with his supreme skills on the offensive end, great touch in the paint and a jump shot out to three-point range, Tobey is limited by his defense.

There may be good news there, though. Tobey seemed destined to an afternoon nailed to the bench Saturday against a ‘Nova team that plays four guards, but Bennett said after the game that Tobey’s defense – repeat that, Tobey’s defense – was key to Virginia’s second-half effort.

Villanova tried to exploit Tobey by running pick-and-rolls at him nearly every time down the floor, but he was able to slow the ‘Cats down just enough, and didn’t need help defending in the post, freeing up his teammates to key on Villanova’s perimeter shooters.

Tobey, to this stage, is Tobey, pretty much even-steven from what he was last year. Wilkins is an improvement on Atkins. Gill of 2015-2016 is an improvement on the Gill of 2014-2015. Ditto for this season’s Brogdon and Perrantes versus last season’s.

Thompson isn’t quite Anderson, but Thompson, Hall and Shayok are better than the Anderson, Nolte, Hall and Shayok that played last March.

This year’s group has Reuter and Salt to eat minutes in the post if Gill, Wilkins and Tobey get in early foul trouble; last year, Nolte had to slide from the three to the four in those situations.

Last year’s Cavs won the ACC regular-season title and 30 games overall. This year’s team has more talent, more depth, and a much higher ceiling.

– Column by Chris Graham

augusta free press
augusta free press