ELDER: Virginia needs more from its junior class
Monday night’s outcome should have come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the Virginia men’s basketball team over the last three weeks. The 54-48 overtime defeat against Miami had all the telltale signs of a Cavalier loss such as a blown second-half lead, missed free throws — you name it.
Malcolm Brogdon’s jersey retirement earlier in the evening served as a not-so-subtle reminder of the talent Virginia lost from last year’s Elite Eight squad. That does not even begin to mention the post void left by Mike Tobey — who was also in attendance — and Anthony Gill.
Coach Tony Bennett lost key players, and expectations were rightfully lowered for this season — especially after lauded transfer junior forward Austin Nichols was dismissed from the team in November.
But to lose four games in a row, including six of the past eight outings? Not even the most pessimistic could have expected that. Virginia basketball is officially underperforming, and much of the blame falls on the junior class.
It was unrealistic to expect senior guard London Perrantes to carry the load. At 6-foot-2, he lacks both the size and elite quickness to score 15 or 20 points a night. He is a solid point guard and a dangerous shooter, but he’s no Lonzo Ball.
Meanwhile, it would be foolish to rely on the freshman class — no matter highly touted it may have been. Both guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome along with forward Mamadi Diakite have flashed potential, but their defensive inefficiencies and offensive cold spells are typical of most freshmen who aren’t projected NBA Draft lottery picks.
The junior class — which features guards Devon Hall, Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson and forward Isaiah Wilkins — needed to make the biggest strides and to lead the team, especially on the offensive end. They have not stepped up their games to the level Virginia needed.
The loss of Nichols was certainly a huge blow to Virginia’s frontcourt and the junior class in general. The Memphis transfer was supposed to be the interior scorer and rim protector Bennett was accustomed to having the past few years with Akil Mitchell, Darion Atkins and Gill. And given his first team All-American Athletic Conference selection and his 3.4 blocks per game in 2014-15 — good for third in the nation — Nichols had the potential to surpass his predecessors.
But in his absence, Virginia became a jump-shooting team. The Cavaliers had three guards in the junior class waiting in the wings. But despite their gradual improvements over last season, the trio has not been capable of stopping Virginia’s slide.
Hall — who started 20 games last season averaging 4.4 points per game — has upped his average to 8.4 points per contest. He has had a nice improvement this season but could hardly put a dent in replacing Brogdon’s 18.2 or Gill’s 13.8.
Thompson — who started the first 13 games of the season — slightly improved his average from 4.3 to 6.1 points per game. Shayok, who has started the past 13 games, made the biggest leap — from 4.3 to 9.6.
Say what you will about Bennett’s system and the importance of knowing the pack line. The trio of junior guards might be passable on the defensive end, but scoring points still matters.
Over the past three games, the Cavalier offense has been embarrassingly anemic. Virginia notched just 55 points against Duke, 41 against North Carolina and 48 against Miami in overtime. Those totals are nowhere near good enough.
Meanwhile, Wilkins provides great energy. However, at 6-foot-7, he simply lacks the size to be a true scoring threat in the paint. He averages a modest 7.6 points per game, but Bennett calls him a “glue guy” — not a playmaker — for a reason.
If Cavalier fans wanted a microcosm of the junior class, look no further than its performance in Monday’s overtime period. After Hall made a three to start at the 4:33 mark, Thompson missed two jumpers, Hall missed two free throws and a three pointer and Shayok came up flat on two attempts — including an ill-advised jumper with 11 seconds left. The juniors had their opportunities, but they failed to deliver.
None of the juniors were recruited as superstars — all four were three-star recruits, according to ESPN. But, from Atkins to Joe Harris and even Brogdon, Bennett has brought in players who have outperformed their recruiting rankings. That hasn’t been the case with the juniors.
With Brogdon’s name now hanging in the rafters and no legitimate low-post scoring threat to be found, Virginia needed more than just modest growth from its junior class. No one expected them to become All-Americans like Brogdon, or even to necessarily grace the All-ACC teams like Gill. But its current production is simply not enough to compete with most ranked teams.
Barring some disaster, Virginia should still make the NCAA tournament. But any deep NCAA run seems far-fetched at its current offensive output. Only the juniors can change that.
Robert Elder was the 127th Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @R_F_D_E.