The play was all a blur to Pittsburgh guard Cameron Wright. Still is. At last month’s media day in Charlotte, Wright said he wasn’t sure which Virginia player or players blocked his shot in the semifinals of last year’s ACC Tournament.
Was it Darion Atkins? Justin Anderson? Perhaps Anthony Gill?
“It was just a really good defensive play for their team,” said Wright, hoping to change the subject.
Good luck getting Virginia fans to move on from what has become known as the “triple block.”
Ditto for Virginia coach Tony Bennett and his players.
The play, which involved three bench players, was a microcosm of Bennett’s sum-of-the-parts, team-oriented approach that paved the way to an ACC championship and NCAA Sweet 16 run.
“It is symbolic,” said Virginia junior Malcolm Brogdon, recalling the collective swat that came during the second half of the win. “It’s in every highlight video that we have of [last] season. It represents so much of what we strive to represent.”
This season, that “triple block” mentality will once again be key for Virginia as it looks to replace program linchpins Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell and prove that their status as a preseason Top-10 team is warranted. Multiple players will have to pick up the slack for the departed stars, which Bennett believes is a positive since teams that rely on just one or two guys are easier to shut down; balanced squads are harder to game plan for.
“We are more of an equal opportunity team,” Bennett said.
A team that is coming off a 30-7 season, won both the ACC regular-season and tournament championships, yet was still picked only fourth in the preseason league poll behind Duke, North Carolina and ACC newcomer Louisville.
“I think that can work to our advantage,” Brogdon said. “That just adds more fuel to the fire.”
With Harris gone, Brogdon will clearly be more of a marked man. Last season, the 6-foot-5 guard, who had missed the entire previous season with a foot injury, snuck up on people as teams zeroed in on trying to stop Harris.
After hitting the game-winning 3-pointer in the regular-season win at Pitt, Brogdon’s confidence soared. He led Virginia in scoring and steals and was second in rebounds and assists en route to being voted to the All-ACC First Team.
“My team was able to get me in my spots to where I was able to shine,” Brogdon said. “I think this year I’ll be doing a lot of the opposite — getting my teammates into spots to shine. That’s what the attention does for you and something Joe did at a very high level.”
Bennett loves that Brogdon is a “complete” player and has “a maturity beyond his years.”
“He’s a winner; he likes to win,” Bennett said. “You see that in him whenever you do stuff.
“Maybe he isn’t poetry in motion, but he’s powerful, he can shoot the ball, he rebounds, he can guard.”
Brogdon, who has always been known for having a strikingly similar disposition to President Barack Obama, knows that more of the leadership onus will be on him this season. Unifying political parties won’t be on his docket, but on a team with just one senior, he knows he needs to take firmer control of the reins.
“I have to be more of a vocal leader this year and also lead by example, which I think Joe and Akil did at a very high level,” he said. “If you wanted to see how it was done or wanted confidence from somebody, it was them that you looked to.”
The departure of Harris has freed up minutes for a new guard to step into the rotation. Right now, Devon Hall appears to be the guy. The redshirt freshman, who sat out last season, has drawn rave reviews for his improvement and will likely see time at all three backcourt positions. With the suspension of London Perrantes for Friday’s season opener at James Madison, Hall could very well find himself in the starting lineup.
Pushing Hall for playing time at the guard spots will be freshmen Marial Shayok and B.J. Stith.
Attempting to fill the Mitchell void — a pretty sizable one when you consider that Mitchell was the best defensive player on, arguably, the best defensive team in the country last season — will be the triumvirate of Gill, Mike Tobey and Atkins.
According to Bennett, each player worked hard to address their weaknesses in the offseason. Tobey got stronger to help with his finishing around the basket; Gill improved his defensive mobility; and Atkins became more aware of the consistent intensity required.
Bennett said Atkins brings a lot of the same things that Mitchell did to the table in terms of athleticism, though he probably won’t be able to go out on the perimeter and defend the Jabari Parkers of the world — something Mitchell did throughout his career.
“He’s not Akil, but there are some characteristics that he has that are similar to Akil in terms of quickness on ball screens and his ability to block shots,” Bennett said. “He has terrific timing.”
Atkins, who was frustrated about his lack of playing time last season, knows this is his big chance.
“A lot of expectations have been put on me because I have a lot of experience in the program,” said the senior, “and people expect me to come out and have a great season. And I expect myself to do the same thing. I’ve been patient, I’ve waited — I feel like it’s my time. I’m just eager to play.”
Evan Nolte, who can play on the perimeter or on the interior, is also in the mix, along with freshmen Jack Salt and Isaiah Wilkins.
“I think we’ll be, at times, a little more inside-oriented — whether it’s Anthony Gill, Darion [Atkins], Mike Tobey, different guys,” Bennett said. “At times we’ll play Nolte at the 4. He gives you, you saw it at the end of last year, some perimeter shooting that balances and stretches the defense.”
The good news for Bennett is that Harris and Mitchell were his only losses. He returns seven rotation players who accounted for 70 percent of the team’s points. Among that group is Perrantes, an All-ACC Freshman Team selection, and Anderson, the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year who will likely be stepping into Harris’ spot in the starting lineup.
That’s not to say that replacing many of the intangibles that Harris and Mitchell provided will be easy.
“What Joe brought to the table was that he was so unselfish,” Bennett said. “He moved so hard and drew a lot of attention. We don’t have a clone for him, so we’ll have to find it in other ways.”
“The roles will be dispersed,” Brogdon added. “No one person can fill Joe’s role. No one person can fill Akil’s role, though I can say Darion will play a huge part in doing what Akil did for us.”
Last month, Bennett had the chance to meet Muhammed Ali. He said the conversation with the icon reinforced all of his beliefs about playing as a team. Ali was “The Greatest,” but Bennett said there have been few athletes like him — ones capable of doing everything themselves.
“You have to do it collectively,” Bennett said.
At media day, Bennett fondly recalled the “triple block” against Pitt. He said it was no accident that the play appeared in numerous highlight films produced by the program. Yes, it was a spectacular defensive sequence, but really it was so much more than that.
“[It was] symbolic,” Bennett said. “And I think [the players] get that.”
At the end of the day, it could be three, four or even five players who pick up the slack for Harris and Mitchell.
Quintuple block, anyone?