Is this the year that Jay Huff finally lives up to the Jay Huff hype?

jay huff uva basketballThe only way UVA Basketball fans could have been happier about the 2019 national title would be if Jay Huff had played a bigger role in the title chase.

It’s been a source of consternation for Wahoo Nation that Huff, the 7’1” Hoonicorn, blessed with deft touch from three-point range, the ability to put the ball on the floor at the perimeter and get himself to the hoop, hasn’t been able to get anything resembling consistent minutes in his two seasons, plus redshirt year, in Charlottesville.

The fan base looks at Huff hitting three threes in the regular-season home finale win over Louisville, the 12 points in the big comeback win at Louisville two weeks prior, the 11 points in 10 minutes that keyed the win at Clemson in January, and throw their hands in the air when they see him get a total – a total! – of 18 minutes in UVA’s six NCAA Tournament wins.

Why is Jack Salt getting so many minutes, they’d say. Mamadi Diakite, OK, he hit the big shot against Purdue, but still, what about our boy?

Then you loop in Kihei Clark, for some reason. Clark had nothing to do with keeping Huff off the floor.

What kept Huff off the floor last year was Tony Bennett discovering the winning formula that, to me, will be the winning formula for the foreseeable future: going four-guard as much as absolutely possible.

Meaning it was De’Andre Hunter and Braxton Key, the ultimate swiss-army knives, able to guard any position, one through five, that limited the minutes for the bigs last year.

When you can have a Hunter or a Key, or a Hunter and a Key, on the floor, you only need one big, and for Bennett, that meant a two-man rotation of Salt and Diakite, his best interior defenders, with a sprinkle of Huff when the offense stagnated, which wasn’t often, with Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, all 2019 NBA Draft picks, sticking the ball in the hole on a consistent basis.

“I think a lot of what my role was last year was if we needed an offensive spark, I could sometimes bring that,” Huff acknowledged in a recent interview with The Athletic. “In other games when we didn’t need it, or it didn’t work, it wasn’t as necessary. So it was really just dependent on the game. Everyone on our team knows their role, or should.”

Heading into 2019, now, things are different. The Big Three is gone. Salt is gone. Key is back, but he’s the only swiss-army knife that Bennett can rely on, at the outset, anyway.

Aside: this is where you’d love to have Sam Hauser immediately eligible. Or that Jabri Abdur-Rahim would just skip his stupid senior year of high school and get on with college already. I digress.

Back to Huff: it’s him and Diakite, with redshirt freshman Francisco Caffaro, a 7’1” big who looked good in the FIBA U19 World Cup this summer, competing for frontcourt minutes.

Is this finally the year we see the Hoonicorn break through?

Have to assume so, and Huff, for his part, is working to make it happen, most significantly by investing time in himself in the weight room.

Huff famously showed up at UVA as a true freshman at 190 pounds. By last season, he was up to 230, though still looked more string bean than NBA prospect.

He says he’s gained 10-12 pounds in the offseason, putting him in the 240-pound range, which, good.

Huff has also been working on adding some post play to his offensive game, though honestly, the Virginia offense doesn’t ask for a lot of traditional post-ups from its bigs.

Still, it does make him more versatile, though the key is going to be on the defensive end, which UVA fans hate seeing people like continue to harp on.

It’s not just blocking shots, which Huff can do, leading the team last year with a 10.5 percent block rate (Diakite was a close second, at 10.2 percent).

At 7’1” with tremendous ups, Huff is an elite rim protector. What he has always needed to improve on is being able to hedge on pick-and-rolls and flash across the lane on post-to-post doubles, two foundational elements in the pack-line defensive scheme used by Bennetts since Dick Bennett, Tony’s father, was a D3 coach in Wisconsin.

Lateral mobility is the key there, and it’s always been odd to me to have to try to think through why a guy as good at getting to the rim from the perimeter on dribble-drives has been as plodding as Huff has been with his footwork on the perimeter on the defensive end.

It seems to me to be less about lateral mobility there, and more about crispness of recognition of what is going on.

The pack-line requires a lot in terms of reads and recognition from bigs on the back line.

I remember Anthony Gill telling me that it took him the year that he spent as a redshirt and then most of his sophomore season to figure it out to the point that he didn’t have to think about his responsibilities anymore, and that once that sort of bell went off, he could play freely, on offense and defense.

Gill had the advantage of more minutes on the floor to be able to get to that point. Huff has had loads of practice time, but the game reps haven’t been there because of what has been in front of him.

That shouldn’t be an issue this season, particularly early.

This will be the year that Huff should finally be able to shine, assuming that defensive bell goes off for him, and he can get into that comfort zone that allows him to just go out there and play.

Assuming that happens, man, might we see the Huff that we’ve been expecting since that debut against Austin Peay back in 2017, when he had 16 points, shot 7-of-8 from the floor, and started us all down the path of, come on, Tony, give us more?

We’re so greedy, wearing our championship hats and T-shirts, and still wanting more.

Column by Chris Graham


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UVA Basketball Fans!

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