augusta free press news

UVA basketball progress report: Cavs still searching for identity

virginia basketballEight games into the 2016-2017 UVA basketball season, and no, we still don’t have a sense of what this Cavs team is going to be.

It’s not going to be the recent vintage with a balance of scoring from the perimeter and the post. The dismissal of Austin Nichols, who was set to replace the production lost with the graduation of Anthony Gill, guarantees that.

But that’s not the only story. Each of the past three years, coach Tony Bennett has had to account for the loss of a perimeter leader to the NBA – Joe Harris in 2014, Justin Anderson in 2015 and Malcolm Brogdon in 2016.

Anderson stepped up after the loss of Harris to vault from being the team’s sixth man to being an NBA first-round pick. Brogdon, similarly, went from being a secondary option to being one of the best players in the country in the wake of the loss of Anderson.

One constant throughout that process has been point guard London Perrantes, installed as a starter as a first-year, and who, logically, would be the guy to step up to replace the productivity lost to Brogdon’s move to the NBA.

Except that Perrantes isn’t a scorer like Harris, Anderson or Brogdon. Sure, he can score, but Perrantes is at his most effective as an old-school pass-first, shoot-when-I-have-to point guard, despite the talk around the program the past couple of years about Bennett wanting Perrantes to be a little more selfish.

Which means that it’s going to have to be somebody else to step up alongside Perrantes in the backcourt.

Who that ends up being, well, your guess is still as good as mine. Only Perrantes is averaging in double digits in scoring right – at 10.0 points per game. Darius Thompson (9.8 points per game) and Marial Shayok (9.3 points per game) are probably the best-equipped to increase their productivity. Shayok (45.5% FG, 1-of-11 on threes) shows glimpses of his potential as an elite scorer, but he also seems to go through stretches where he gets lost in the weeds.

Thompson still seems to be getting his feet under him in terms of his confidence, but from what you see – 52.8% shooting from the field, 47.8 percent from three-point range – you definitely want to see more, and it’s confounding that you don’t.

Kyle Guy, a heralded freshman who was Indiana’s Mr. Basketball and a McDonald’s All-American, is averaging 7.8 points per game, but notably is only getting 15.4 minutes per game off the bench. By far, Guy seems like he’s going to be a special player, though he’s primarily a shooter, not necessarily a scorer, but you have to imagine that his relative lack of playing time is directly proportional to where he is in picking up his assignments on defense.

You have to guess the same about sophomore Jared Reuter (6.1 points per game in 15.8 minutes per game, shooting 60% from the field) and freshman Mamadi Diakite (5.4 points per game in 15.0 minutes per game, shooting 59.3% from the field).

Those two seem most capable of being able to score in the paint, back to the basket, and Diakite has shown range to be able to pick-and-pop. But right now, their apparent limitations on defense have them watching the offensively-challenged Isaiah Wilkins (6.8 points per game in 25.1 minutes per game, 59.5% shooting from the field) and Jack Salt (4.9 points per game in 19.9 minutes per game, shooting 58.6 percent from the field) get the bulk of the minutes at the four and five.

There’s no reason for UVA fans to hit the panic button. As much as we fondly remember the contributions of Gill, for example, we conveniently forget that he was basically a non-factor in his first season on Grounds, as a sophomore transfer from South Carolina, well into February, as he struggled to figure out his place in the Pack Line.

Down the stretch in 2014, Gill became a force in the post on both ends, and a UVA team that couldn’t put the ball in the bucket in early losses at home to VCU and Wisconsin went on to win the ACC regular-season championship and brought home the first ACC Tournament title for the school in 38 years.

Brogdon, we also remember for his exploits, forgetting that he was a 6.7-points-per-game scorer as a freshman. And that Anderson kid playing in Dallas now, scored 7.6 points a game as a freshman and 7.8 a game as a sophomore, and 12.2 as a junior, before heading off to the pros.

Guys get better in-season with Bennett and his staff, and they get better season to season.

They’ll get this figured out. Honestly, the coaches will look a lot smarter, and the fans will be a lot happier, when Thompson and Shayok grow more confident in their roles as go-to scorers in the backcourt, and when Reuter and Diakite get more confident in what they’re expected to do on defense, and thus can put more attention to what they can contribute on the offensive end.

Perrantes, who seems to be struggling right now, and is, because opposing coaches can key their game plans on him, in the absence of other guys stepping up on a consistent basis, will be more efficient when what seems right now is the weight of the world is off his shoulders, and he can be the point guard that he wants to be again.

We knew going into this season that this Virginia team was going to endure some growing pains, with the losses of Brogdon, Gill and Mike Tobey, with new guys like Guy and Ty Jerome getting integrated into the rotation, and returnees like Shayok, Thompson and Devon Hall being expected to do some different things.

I’ve been saying since the spring that this UVA team would lose a game or two in November and December that you wouldn’t expect them to, but by mid-January, it would start to live up to the preseason expectations.

Losing to West Virginia is nothing to get upset about. There are still two toughies on the schedule this month – at Cal and at Louisville.

There are still more growing pains to come. You don’t want to dismiss individual game results, but the ones that matter, as we all well know, are the ones in March. I like where this team seems headed in terms of its journey to March.

Column by Chris Graham