UVA basketball: Prepare for March Madness as if Justin Anderson isn’t available

justin dunkSecond-ranked UVA is 8-0 since second-leading scorer Justin Anderson went down with a broken finger on Feb. 7. With today’s news that Anderson had to undergo an appendectomy, coach Tony Bennett is likely preparing to play the rest of the season without Anderson.

It may not be that dire. In a news release, the basketball program indicated that Anderson’s status for next week’s ACC Tournament is to be determined, but return from an appendectomy in a week – Virginia plays the winner of the 8 vs. 9 game in Greensboro on Thursday – seems overly optimistic.

A standard return from an appendectomy is two to three weeks. There are stories of college and pro athletes returning in a week, but those are the exception.

Two weeks out is the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament; three weeks out is the Sweet 16. Even looking two weeks out, it’s hard to imagine that Bennett would roll the dice with Anderson doing much more than coming off the bench after what by that point would have been a six-week layoff.

When it appeared that Anderson was in line to return for Saturday’s regular-season finale at Louisville, the good news, aside from the fact that you were getting a 13-points-per-game scorer back in the rotation, was that he’d have at least that game and one game in the ACC Tournament to get his feet back under him, and for the team to rebuild the chemistry that it had developed with Anderson and then recalibrated when he was forced out.

If he is able to return next week, great, don’t count on that happening, but that’s at least one more game for Bennett and the Cavs to get back to a new normal.

Assume Anderson isn’t available until at least the NCAA Tournament. You have to at this point, and not only do you have to, but you should want to, because of course outside of winning basketball games, we’re talking about the young man’s health. But let’s get to the NCAA Tournament: six weeks off, recovering from a broken finger and then an appendectomy.

Do you really want to roll him out there in a do-or-die game to work out the kinks? Maybe in the opener, if you’re a one or two seed, a heavy favorite against a small-conference team, but if it gets pushed back any from that opener, Anderson is at best a 12- to 15-minute guy for you from there on out.

Which is why I say that Bennett needs to prepare for the rest of the season as if Anderson isn’t available.

It could be worse. Think back to the first Louisville game when Anderson went down. It was hard to imagine Virginia being able to hold off the Cardinals that night, much less get through the next several games without a blemish or two.

And the first couple of games, in particular, were rough – the tight win at N.C. State that looks a lot better now with the Pack in the mix for an NCAA bid, the one-point win at home over Wake Forest.

The Cavs started hitting their stride post-Anderson their next game out, a 12-point win over a Pitt team that is in the mix for an NCAA bid, and was coming into that game off a blowout win over a pretty good UNC team.

Virginia has won five straight games by double digits, which is significant in that it’s the first time in program history that the team has won five straight games in conference play by 10 or more.

UVA probably needs a couple more wins to sew up the #1 seed in the East Region, and it won’t be easy to get there. Louisville needs a win on Saturday and some help to get an ACC Tournament double-bye. Next week in Greensboro, the quarterfinal game on Thursday will pit the ‘Hoos against a team fighting for its postseason life like a Pitt.

Win that one, and you’re probably playing Louisville or UNC on Friday in the semis.

These are all good tests for a Virginia team that will have to beat these same kinds of teams to advance in the NCAAs.

Before you wonder about how things could get any worse, think about this: best-case scenario after the Duke loss was that UVA goes to Louisville for the regular-season finale with a 28-1 record.

So let’s assume that Anderson doesn’t get hurt in the first Louisville game, and that the last month plays out the way it does.

Appendicitis just happens; you have to assume that this was going to be an issue today no matter what.

Anderson doesn’t go down with the pinky four weeks ago, and Bennett and his staff is trying to figure out now how to win games without Anderson in the mix.

Now, on the way to Louisville and the ACC Tournament, with the NCAAs looming.

It took the Cavs at least three games to get the ship righted after Anderson went down on Feb. 7. Three games from now could be, worst case, the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

So yeah, things could be worse.

– Column by Chris Graham

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