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UVA loses Justin Anderson for 4-6 weeks: Time to start over?

justin dunkThird-ranked UVA has won 21 of its first 22, is 9-1 in the ACC, and now has to start over from scratch. That’s the feeling sweeping UVA Nation with the news that Justin Anderson, the team’s second-leading scorer, and arguably the Cavs’ heart and soul, is out four to six weeks with surgery scheduled for Sunday on a broken finger on his left hand that occurred late in the first half of Virginia’s 52-47 win over #9 Louisville Saturday night.

If he is able to return in four weeks, Anderson could be back in the lineup as early as the March 7 season finale at Louisville, and if not then, at the latest for the start of the ACC Tournament. Six weeks gets us to maybe the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Either way, the team that plays at Louisville, plays in Greensboro and plays in the Big Dance will not be the same team that is right now 21-1.

That’s not to say that it can’t succeed at a high level without Anderson in the mix. UVA coach Tony Bennett still has first-team All-ACC guard Malcolm Brogdon, still has Anthony Gill, still has London Perrantes, Mike Tobey, Darion Atkins, and a bench that still goes nine-deep.

It’s also not saying that the Cavs won’t be better when all is said and done, and let’s assume that they will, as guys currently not getting a lot of playing time will see their minutes and responsibilities increase in Anderson’s absence.

But nobody is saying that any of it will be easy until Anderson is able to return. Because to be sure, Anderson is a key reason Virginia is where it is, averaging 13.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game in 2014-2015, shooting 48.0 percent from the field and 48.4 percent from three-point range in 29.4 minutes per game.

It will be Anderson’s shutdown defense on the perimeter that will be toughest for Bennett to replace, because honestly, Virginia has gone 9-1 in the ACC this year with Anderson being a shadow of what he was in nonconference play on the offensive end.

Anderson is averaging 11.4 points per game in ACC play, shooting 37.4 percent from the floor (34-of-91) and 36.4 percent from three-point range (18-of-49). And his numbers in his last six were down even from that – since an 0-for-8 effort from the field at Boston College on Jan. 17, Anderson has shot 32.7 percent from the field (17-of-52) and 28 percent from three (7-of-25) in averaging 9.3 points per game.

So who steps up? If you believe Seth Davis of CBS and Sports Illustrated, the Cavs are doomed.

In reality, the rumors of the death of Virginia’s 2015 national-championship hopes have been greatly exaggerated.

Junior Evan Nolte started the second half in Anderson’s absence, playing 16 of the final 20, 24 overall, with pedestrian numbers (three points on 1-of-2 shooting, one rebound, a +11 plus-minus). Nolte had seen his playing time cut severely at the start of the conference season, averaging 7.8 minutes per game in ACC play before his long stint Saturday night, getting a total of just 16 minutes in the previous four games.

Freshman Marial Shayok would seem to be in the mix to step in for Anderson. The athletic Shayok had been getting significant minutes in ACC play – 31 in the double-OT win at Miami, and 19 minutes as recently as the win at Virginia Tech two weeks ago, but his playing time had dwindled of late, getting seven minutes in the loss to Duke, eight in the win at UNC and just four Saturday night against Louisville, even with Anderson out of the mix in the second half.

Redshirt freshman Devon Hall could get some additional minutes with the absence of Anderson. Hall started the season-opening win at JMU when starting point guard London Perrantes had to miss that game due to a suspension, and has played double-digit minutes in eight games, but he’s also had four DNP-CDs in the ACC, including the wins over UNC and Louisville, and just one of those double-digit minutes games was in the ACC (the blowout win over Clemson last month, which featured a lot of garbage time).

Some on the message boards have been speculating that Bennett could go big to replace Anderson. Of late, he has rotated between having two of the trio of Mike Tobey, Darion Atkins and Anthony Gill starting at the four and five, so it would seem natural at first glance to just go with all three, plus the backcourt of Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon.

Gill and Atkins are athletic enough to hedge smalls off screens and pick-and-rolls, but it’s hard to imagine either of them chasing after twos and threes through screens for 25-30 minutes, and it’s harder to imagine Bennett wanting them to, honestly.

An intriguing wild card is freshman Isaiah Wilkins, who has been getting minutes lately as a stretch four (double-figure minutes in six of Virginia’s last eight games, shooting 55.5 percent from the field, averaging 8.4 rebounds per 40 minutes in that stretch), but whose skill set seems more suited long-term to three.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Wilkins getting extended minutes at the three with Gill and Atkins in the post and Perrantes and Brogdon in the backcourt.

The more you look at that five, and that one doesn’t look bad at all. Replace Wilkins with Shayok, and that five looks pretty good, too.

Wilkins and Shayok provide the most athleticism of the list of replacements for Anderson. Nolte isn’t as athletic, but he knows the system best as a junior who has logged big minutes in important games. Hall is in the conversation mainly because he can slide in at the one and allow Perrantes and Brogdon to move off-ball.

However this shakes out, Bennett has some time to shake it out. Best-case is that Anderson returns for Louisville or ACC Tournament, at least from what we’re hearing now. At best, then, Bennett would get the Louisville game and the ACC Tournament to get Anderson back into playing shape and to jigger his rotation back around to get Anderson his minutes.

The chemistry of a team late in a season is as important as the accumulation of the talent on the floor, and is arguably more important. Louisville, a game (or two or three) in Greensboro, and then the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, could be enough to rebuild the chemistry, but that’s the four-weeks scenario.

Six weeks gets us into the NCAA Tournament. It’s hard to see Anderson being more than an afterthought by that point.

But that’s a ways off. What about the here and now? Well, for starters, the race for the regular-season title and #1 seed in the ACC Tournament gets more interesting with Anderson out of the lineup, clearly. The win over Louisville gave Virginia a two-game lead over the pack, and that lead was looking just short of commanding before it became known that Anderson was going on the shelf.

Now you look back at that pack, and yeah, that pack is deep, with four teams in the Top 15 of the national polls (Notre Dame, North Carolina, Duke and Louisville) breathing down the Cavs’ necks.

With Anderson in the lineup, UVA would have been favored against each of its next seven opponents – at N.C. State on Wednesday, at home against Wake Forest on Saturday, at home against Pitt on Feb. 16, at home against Florida State on Feb. 22, at Wake Forest on Feb. 25, at home against Virginia Tech on Feb. 28 and on the road at Syracuse on March 2.

The road game at Louisville on March 7 to conclude the regular season would likely have seen Louisville at least a slight home favorite.

To say that the schedule is still favorable even without Anderson through the end of the regular season is fair. N.C. State in Raleigh on Wednesday was going to be tough with Virginia at full force, with the Wolfpack desperately needing a W to bolster their fading NCAA Tournament hopes after losing four of their last five after a 14-6 start that included a win over Duke last month.

Now State is hungry for the win over a Top 5 team to pair with its win over #4 Duke, and smelling blood in the water. Wednesday gets infinitely tougher being the first game for Bennett to figure out the new chemistry, but this is still a State team that comes into the game treading water.

The three-game homestand with Wake, Pitt and FSU, followed by a road game at Wake and the home finale with Virginia Tech, all teams with sub-.500 records in conference play, could give Bennett the time he needs to work out the kinks in the new rotation.

Which is to say, this team is far from doomed. The Cavs still have to be the favorite to win the ACC regular season and #1 seed heading into the ACC Tournament. You have to think that Anderson will be back before Greensboro, and that the intervening four weeks are an opportunity to give Shayok, Wilkins, Nolte and Hall extra minutes to develop and become important role players when the team is back at full strength and aiming at a long run in the Big Dance.

It would be a lot easier to go to bed tonight if we didn’t have to think about Justin Anderson getting ready to go under the knife tomorrow.

Chasing an NCAA title isn’t supposed to be easy.

– Column by Chris Graham

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