There were Virginia fans in late December who were ready to give up on 2013-14, ready to lament another season without an NCAA Tournament appearance, even ready to give up on the Tony Bennett regime altogether.
UVa had just lost by 35 points at Tennessee and looked like a disjointed mess.
But then, starting with a win at Florida State in its ACC opener, everything started clicking.
After beating Pittsburgh on Sunday, Virginia is back in the Top 25. The 20th-ranked Cavaliers (17-5, 8-1) are off to their best start in league play in 32 years – an unfriendly bounce at Cameron Indoor Stadium away from being undefeated and tied with Syracuse atop the ACC.
At the halfway mark of ACC play, it’s time to hand out my mid-season report cards.
(In alphabetical order, grades also take non-conference play into consideration)
Stats: 9.4 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.5 APG
Analysis: Has been streaky. Sunday’s game was somewhat of a microcosm. Anderson was sloppy at times – his turnover that led to an easy fast break layup before the end of the half was a killer. However, his two driving layups on consecutive second-half possessions came at a crucial juncture when it seemed as if Pitt might go on a run. Anderson was just not going to be denied on those plays as he barreled right through Panther defenders. Overall, his defensive ability, hustle, positive attitude and improving offensive repertoire have been important to Virginia’s success.
Stats: 3.3 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 0.7 BPG
Analysis: Has been a victim of the team’s depth. The junior hasn’t gotten consistent minutes and has been on the fringe of Bennett’s rotation for much of the season. Atkins got his first start against Northern Iowa and played well – eight points, five rebounds and five blocks – but then had a couple duds against Norfolk State and Tennessee and slowly saw his role decrease. Bennett has said Atkins is better defensively than fellow big men Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey, but not as good offensively. So, strange as it may sound, Bennett is choosing offense over defense in this particular lineup decision.
Stats: 11.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.5 SPG
Analysis: It took him a good chunk of the non-conference slate to shake off the rust from sitting out all of last season with his foot injury. But since the start of ACC play, the sophomore guard has been Virginia’s best player. Against Pitt, Brogdon showed why he might be a strong contender for the All-ACC First Team. He had 16 points, five rebounds, four assists and no turnovers – and was the primary defender on Panthers leading scorer Lamar Patterson (who was 3 of 14 from the field for only 10 points). Brogdon is shooting 51 percent from the field – including a staggering 48 percent from 3 – in ACC play.
Stats: 7.4 PPG, 4.0 RPG
Analysis: Gill, like Brogdon, has had to shake off some rust after sitting out last season (per NCAA transfer rules). The sophomore forward has definitely had some good moments. His 19-point, seven-rebound outing propelled Virginia to its best non-conference win – a 76-73 win over SMU in the Corpus Christi Challenge. Gill has provided a physical element. His defense is still a work in progress, though it appears to be on the upswing. After the loss at Tennessee, Bennett said Gill was the only one of his players who was consistently in the right spots.
Analysis: Hall is redshirting. The Virginia Beach native figures to battle for minutes next season with guards Teven Jones and incoming freshman B.J. Stith.
Stats: 11.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.2 APG
Analysis: Seemed out of sync or a step slow in November and December – a likely result of missing time in the summer with a foot injury – but now appears to be returning to his 2012-13 form in which he was an All-ACC First Team selection. Harris’ numbers are down, which is a byproduct of Virginia having a more-balanced offense. Harris has been nearly as efficient as last season. He’s shooting 47 percent – including 42 percent from 3 – and his defense has been as good as ever. His free-throw shooting has been an Achilles’ heel – he’s shooting a career-low 66 percent. Virginia will need the best version of “Joey Hoops” come March.
Stats: 0.7 PPG, 0.4 APG
Analysis: With the emergence of freshman London Perrantes, Jones hasn’t seen the floor, except for occasional spot duty. Jones’ most memorable moment came against Virginia Tech when he dunked, then picked up a technical foul (which seemed unwarranted). Despite his limited playing time, Jones always seems to have a great attitude, cheering his teammates on from the bench. Jones is Virginia’s quickest player and a good on-the-ball defender. Who knows, Bennett may call on him in a game when we least expect it.
Stats: 6.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.0 SPG
Analysis: Comparing Mitchell’s production this season to his production during his break-out junior campaign isn’t really fair. Last season, Virginia was bereft of offensive weapons and front-court players, so Mitchell received more minutes and, in turn, more shot attempts. That being said, Mitchell’s shooting percentages are down, both from the field (55 percent to 50 percent) and the free-throw line (69 percent to 45 percent). But after not posting any double-doubles in non-conference play, he’s had two in nine ACC games, including a 10-point, 12-rebound outing in the win over Pitt Sunday.
Stats: 2.7 PPG, 0.7 RPG
Analysis: His best game of the season was against SMU when he was 3 of 3 from 3-point range and had a season-high 12 points. However, Nolte hasn’t had any other performances of note. The sophomore’s minutes have been sporadic. Mostly, he’s been used as a zone buster. Perhaps Nolte is saving his best for Syracuse’s famed 2-3, which Virginia will see in its last regular-season home game in March.
Stats: 4.4 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.1 SPG
Analysis: Everything that Bennett was trying to find in a point guard for the previous four seasons. Perrantes has been the proverbial straw that stirs the drink. The freshman’s passing ability, court vision and poise have been uncanny. Perrantes’ 3.3 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks third best in the ACC. He’s only shooting 30 percent from the field, including 31 percent from 3, but right now the Cavaliers don’t need Perrantes to score. They just need him to not be a liability offensively, which he isn’t.
Stats: 7.6 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.2 BPG
Analysis: After a solid freshman campaign, he’s been inconsistent. Has had solid games like the one against Notre Dame (14 points on 7-of-10 shooting) but then has had head-scratching performances like the 0-point, two-rebound one at Florida State. Strength still seems to be an issue with the 6-foot-11, 253-pounder, who seems to get shoved around the paint a little more than he should. Has done a good job of developing his hook shot to the point where it’s one of his go-to moves.
Record: 17-5, 8-1 in the ACC
Analysis: All of that experimenting that Bennett did with his lineups and rotations in November and December is paying dividends now. At the time, he seemed a little nutty with all the combinations he was trying out. Now it looks like sheer genius. It’s almost like Bennett said to himself, “I don’t care about the results in the non-conference, let’s just have everything rolling by the time ACC play begins.” Shortening his rotation, sticking with a set starting lineup and returning to a more-structured offense has made a big difference.