Life without Justin Anderson: UVA coach Tony Bennett presses forward

bennettUVA basketball coach Tony Bennett pushed the incline on the treadmill up a little steeper this morning, steeling himself for the challenge up ahead for his second-ranked Cavaliers, who will have to finish the 2014-2015 regular season without second-leading scorer Justin Anderson.

“I mean, let’s call it what it is. You lose that kind of production, we’ve just got to keep grinding, keep the wheels turning, so to speak,” said Bennett on his weekly ACC teleconference on Monday.

Anderson, a 6”6” junior, went down with an injury to his left hand late in the first half of Virginia’s 52-47 win over #8 Louisville Saturday night. It was initially thought to be a dislocated finger, and Anderson briefly went back into the lineup to finish out the first half with the finger, the pinky finger on his left hand, taped to the ring finger for stability, before being ruled out for the game by the medical staff after closer examination during the halftime break.

Bennett went with reserve Evan Nolte in Anderson’s place, and it sounds like Nolte, a 6’8” junior, is the favorite at this stage to move into the starting lineup beginning with Wednesday’s road game at N.C. State. Nolte started eight games as a freshman in 2012-2013 and averaged 5.7 points per game in 19.8 minutes per game on 41.4 percent shooting from the field and 38.9 percent shooting from three-point range that season.

His playing time decreased the past two seasons with the return of Malcolm Brogdon from injury, and with the decrease in minutes came a decline in productivity. In 21 games off the bench in 2014-2015, Nolte is averaging 2.3 points per game in 12.0 minutes per game, shooting 35.4 percent from the floor and 21.6 percent from three-point range.

Nolte and freshman backcourt-mates Marial Shayok and Devon Hall will have to step up in the interim to try to fill the void left by the absence of Anderson, who is out four to six weeks, a time frame that could have Anderson, who is averaging 13.4 points and 4.3 rebounds in 29.4 minutes per game, back in time for the end of the regular season, in the best-case scenario.

“When you lose a player like that, of course everybody has opportunities and has to step up. But it’s going to be a little stiffer and steeper challenge, and that just is what it is. So you realize that, and you come together,” said Bennett, conceding that the Cavs are “not going to be exactly the same” without Anderson, their emotional leader.

“You don’t have a replica to replace Justin, but other guys will come in, we’ll have to look a little different in different ways and figure this out as we go,” Bennett said. “Certainly with his passion, his shot-blocking abilities, things we can catalogue, he can do that stuff, but I thought the guys responded well in the second half (against Louisville). I thought Evan did a good job and was heady and smart, made the three, passed up an important one, and so we’ll have to spread it out, figure out ways to get it done, certain guys will have to work a little more, and we’ll get it done that way. We have good depth, and we’ll have to rely on that.”

The question for Bennett this time last week was how he was going to get his team to think past the disappointing loss to #4 Duke on Jan. 31. The response, wins over Louisville and on the road at #12 North Carolina, was emphatic, but the challenge of finishing out at least the regular season and maybe longer without Anderson is a different level kind of challenge.

“If we make a big deal out of this, OK, we got through the gauntlet, and now you take a breath and relax, big mistake. If we get tired of trying to do it the way we have, what we do and how we do it, boy, that would be a mistake,” Bennett said. “If you think that getting ready for North Carolina State on the road, and the competition in the league, isn’t going to be challenging, and obviously now without Justin, I think it presents a challenge there, that’s the deal when you play in a league like the ACC. I think our guys responded well, they showed some resiliency, remained true to the things we talked about, but if you kind of take your breath and say, Alright, we’re good now, that would be a huge mistake.”

– Column by Chris Graham

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