BLANK: What drives Virginia's player development?

spmikecurtiscourtesyvirginiaathletics

Virginia strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis has played a key behind-the-scenes role in the team's success.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

All those who follow Virginia basketball knew senior London Perrantes would excel this season, as he has every season since arriving on Grounds. However, Virginia fans may have been caught off guard by the improved performance of juniors Isaiah Wilkins, Marial Shayok and Devon Hall, whose efforts have been crucial to the team’s success.

Wilkins has the highest defensive rating in the ACC and the highest box plus-minus — a statistic for measuring a player’s contribution to the team. He ranks No. 6 in the conference in win shares per 40 minutes as well. Shayok and Hall are no slouches either, both ranking in the top eight in the conference in defensive rating.

In many respects, this success has come out of nowhere. None of the three was particularly heralded out of high school, with all of them ranked three stars by 247 sports upon committing to the Cavaliers. This type of success also isn’t obvious based on their play last year. Shayok’s win shares added per 40 minutes played are up 54 percent on the season, while Wilkins’ are up 43 percent, and Hall’s have more than doubled. For comparison’s sake, Perrantes’ career-high win share per 40 minutes is only up 17 percent from last season.

While the numbers paint a picture of an unprecedented leap in play, it doesn’t feel that shocking. It seems more like just another in a long line of Virginia players suddenly outperforming their pedigrees midway through their career in Charlottesville. Justin Anderson and Anthony Gill’s win shares per 40 minutes rose 71 percent and 44 percent, respectively, between their sophomore and junior seasons.

Of late, Virginia has showed a remarkable ability to develop players. While I’ve taken enough statistics to know that this could be luck, given the small sample size and the fact that many college basketball players improve somewhat throughout their careers, it’s worth wondering where this development comes from.

It’s possible it’s just the nature of coach Tony Bennett’s system. It takes time for players to learn his pack line defense, but once they understand it, it puts them in a position to succeed.

However, I would argue that there may be another, more underrated reason for Virginia’s success in developing players — strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis.

Wilkins, only 6-foot-7, has played primarily against big men on defense this season — a tall task for someone of his stature. According to 247sports, when he committed, he weighed 190 pounds. That’s less than the 6-foot-2 Perrantes currently weighs, according to the Virginia Media guide. Wilkins has added 35 pounds since arriving — a clear factor in achieving his success as a college big man.

Curtis is exceptionally well-qualified to be Virginia basketball’s strength and conditioning coach, a role he has held since 2009. Before coming back to his alma mater, he directed the Michigan athletic department’s strength and conditioning program, and he spent six years as a head strength and conditioning coach in the NBA, working for the Memphis Grizzlies.

Virginia seems to recognize the asset it has in Curtis, as they’ve incorporated him into their personnel decisions. Redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite graduated high school a year early and redshirted just to spend more time in the weight room with Curtis. His work has paid off as well, as Diakite went from being listed as 180 pounds as a recruit to 214 pounds now.

The plan seems to be similar for freshmen Jay Huff and De’Andre Hunter. Huff — listed as 6-foot-11 and 190 pounds as a recruit — and Hunter — 6-foot-7 and 180 pounds — have both been redshirted to work with Curtis and build strength. Virginia seems to fully recognize the asset it has in Curtis, and he can recruit with an eye on skilled, smart players.

While Virginia’s upperclassmen have seemingly succeeded out of nowhere, there may be more going on behind-the-scenes than meets the eye. Virginia’s strength and conditioning program, along with the rest of the coaching staff, seems to have propelled Virginia players to heights well above what a casual observer would expect. Although there’s no way of knowing for certain whether or not it’s a repeatable phenomenon, watching Hall, Shayok and Wilkins develop has made for a much more fun season. 

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