After six games in a span of 12 days, forgive Virginia’s freshmen if their heads are spinning from the whirlwind start to the season.
While the pace has been a bit frantic, coach Tony Bennett likes what he sees in his young basketball team, which improved to 4-2 with Tuesday night’s 80-64 win over North Texas in the consolation round of the NIT Tip-Off. The Cavaliers have time to catch their breath, a week’s break before they venture to Bennett’s old stomping grounds at Wisconsin for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Yeah, it’s early for assessments but Bennett is encouraged.
“With our inexperience, this six-game period, I think they’ve grown a little bit each game in different ways,” Bennett said. “I think they’re maturing little by little. With the addition of [injured point guard] Jontel Evans, hopefully sooner than later, that will give us another weapon. But what I like is that they’ve matured and are starting to understand how they have to play.”
Translated, that means the freshmen are beginning to get it defensively in Bennett’s sophisticated Pack-Line defense, the very essence of his basketball philosophy, and about protecting the ball, to value every possession. Some of that was tested by North Texas’ pressing tactics but the Cavaliers had such a large lead that they fought off any real threat by the visiting Mean Green.
UVa’s freshmen are also getting it on the offensive end. Three of ‘em were the Cavaliers’ top three scorers in the game, all with career highs from Justin Anderson (14), Evan Nolte (13), and Teven Jones (13).
And, yeah, they had better get it because right now Bennett doesn’t have any other options with such a young roster that has only one scholarship senior, who’s played only three minutes this season due to a foot injury, and two scholarship juniors.
“They have to play,” Bennett said. “That’s why they came here. They saw the opportunity. Sometimes that can yield a bit of a rocky road at times but they look like they’re more poised.”
Each one brings something different to the Wahoos’ table and their on-court characteristics are beginning to develop.
Justin Anderson, who brought a human highlight film from high school to UVa, is beginning to look more comfortable with each game under his belt and had a nice all-around game last night with the 14 points, four rebounds, four assists, three steals and a blocked shot.
“Unfortunately, the highlights just show the dunks and things on offense that everybody wants to see but I like to be an all-around player and get my teammates involved,” Anderson said.
It’s his teammates, particularly the elder ones, if there is such a thing on this young squad, that have helped him fit comfortably into the UVa puzzle.
“My teammates have been tremendous in my transition process, having my back and telling me the way instead of making me find the way,” Anderson said.
Evans, Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell have all pointed out mistakes instantly to help Anderson and the rest of the freshmen make corrections without having to learn them on their own in games, something that the youngsters appreciate.
“They’ve been to the NCAA Tournament and they know the way,” Anderson said. “That’s one good thing about our team is that we trust each other and communicate well.”
The bond of those freshmen, including center Mike Tobey and redshirt freshman Jones and late addition Taylor Barnette, has been impressive. They all live in the same dorm, same hall, and that kind of connection is showing up on the court.
“It has been pretty crazy with all these games in a few days, not something I really expected,” Nolte said. “When I got here in the summer I heard people talking about how it’s going to be intense but I’ve had to adapt. I think the freshmen are getting the hang of accepting the challenges.”
Nolte said that he was impressed with how the team took a step toward being unselfish against North Texas, particularly on offense with five players in double figures for the first time since last Feb. 8 vs. Wake Forest.
Anderson said that while the team is young, they aren’t going to accept that as a crutch.
“We have a great freshman class but we don’t want to rely on the excuse that we’re young,” Anderson said. “Or that because we’re freshmen that we make freshmen mistakes. We’re ballplayers and we’ve been playing for so long now that it’s up to us to bounce back from mistakes and get better.”
No wonder Bennett has liked what he has seen.