GOSSAGE: Picking up Cardinal feathers
Sports editor Grant Gossage had the following takeaways after the No. 12 Virginia basketball team’s emphatic 71-55 win Monday night over No. 4 Louisville.
Carelessness with the basketball was a concern for this Virginia team in the preseason. Coach Bennett admitted it to those present at Media Day in late October, saying that at times his group’s assist-to-turnover ratio in practice had been “atrocious.” The problem isn’t quite as frequent or severe now, but it hasn’t gone away entirely.
Minus the ball-handling rock that was Malcolm Brogdon and with plenty of inexperienced pieces stepping into “The President” and his fellow graduates’ places, the 2016-2017 Cavaliers haven’t always valued each offensive possession like they’re taught. Against Louisville’s mix-and-match defenses Monday, Virginia turned the basketball over 14 times.
These came a week after Syracuse’s zone forced 15 turnovers in the Cavaliers’ 66-62 loss at the Carrier Dome.
“You can control your effort,” Bennett said. “You can’t always control turnovers. Now, we want to be as sound as we can. But I don’t know if it pays to harp on guys when they’re turning it over … You just say, ‘Hey, sharpen it up the next time.’”
Return of the King
Bennett and his Cavalier basketball program were in the early running for star small forward V.J. King when the junior transferred to Paul VI Catholic School in Fairfax, Va. in 2014. King made an official visit to Charlottesville and kept Virginia among his top five college choices.
In the end, Louisville won out on the gifted wing and 2016 McDonald’s All-American. Monday, the now-freshman King showcased his scoring ability in a hostile environment versus the nation’s stingiest defense. He tallied 12 first-half points on four-of-six shooting, knocking down a pair of deep threes.
King’s second half was equally impressive even with senior point guard London Perrantes pressing him out on the perimeter. Hitting shots in rhythm and attacking the rim, King finished with a game-high 24 points, nearly half of what the short-handed Cardinal offense was able to produce in total.
“Because we are so inexperienced, we try too hard when we’re down 12 or 14,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “We try to rush it to get back in the game instead of taking our time.”
King might be inexperienced, but man, is he an NBA-level talent.
Touching the paint
At least in the first half Monday, it felt like Virginia was either settling for the jump shot or incapable of getting into the lane. Louisville was denying passing lanes and cutters, and the Cavaliers seemed content to swing it around on the wing until the shot clock was ticking in the single digits.
Virginia attempted 11 three pointers before the break, only four of which found the bottom of the net. Meanwhile, there wasn’t much of a post presence. Virginia totaled only 12 points in the paint over the first 20 minutes of action. Perrantes carried the offense, scoring 11 of the Cavaliers’ 32 by intermission. He bailed out stagnant possessions on more than one occasion.
“It’s just the way it happened,” Perrantes said. “I hit my second shot, a three … So after that I’m just taking what the defense gives me. There were some opportunities to get to the paint, and I got to the free throw line because of that.”
Nearly doubling its production in the paint over the final 20 minutes, Virginia scored 20 points there compared to the Cardinals’ four. Perrantes’ and junior guard Devon Hall’s dribble penetration drew weak-side help, enabling chances under the rim for Wilkins, Diakite, Salt and others.
“We’re just trying to finish everything we get …,” Salt said. “Coaches tell us that when guys draw players, be ready, so that is what we try to do.”
The little things
Much has been said about Virginia’s lack of interior scorers this season, especially in the weeks following junior forward Austin Nichols’ dismissal. Through Monday’s contest, the four remaining Cavalier forwards have combined to average just 20.5 points per game. Junior Isaiah Wilkins leads the group with a 7.5 points per game average.
Wilkins had an incredible performance on both ends of the court against the Cardinals. The Atlanta, Ga. native recorded the first double-double of his collegiate career, contributing 13 points, 11 boards, and five blocks, including one swat into the bleachers that reinvigorated a quiet JPJ crowd. Wilkins did it all.
If there was a single play Monday illustrating his heart, it happened near the end of the night with a comfortable 16 point cushion. Wilkins dove onto a loose ball near the foul line, maintained possession, and called a timeout.
“[Wilkins has] always been our heart and soul from day one — our glue guy,” Bennett said. “He willed us. He knew we needed to respond to the challenge of stopping the ball collectively … He was the leader of our rally and getting us together.”
Sophomore forward Jarred Reuter struggled in limited minutes, appearing overwhelmed by the moment, but his teammates in the post — sophomore Jack Salt and redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite — brought great energy and composure. From a chipped front tooth to a mere point and rebound, Salt had a rough time Saturday at Syracuse.
The New Zealander responded with excellent defense on both junior forward Anas Mahmoud and sophomore forward Ray Spalding, holding them to just two and three points, respectively. Salt’s hard hedging on screens outside also goes unnoticed but is important to the pack-line defense. He scored only four points, but one putback was huge, cutting Virginia’s deficit to two at the half.
“It gave us a lot of energy,” Perrantes said. “We need energy. We need those offensive rebounds. We need [Salt’s] blocks. Everything we get from him is huge.”
Diakite has seen his playing time shortened in ACC play, but in 16 minutes Monday, the Blue Ridge School alum chipped in six points on perfect shooting and — with his absurd wingspan and vertical — added a couple of blocks.
Similar effort to what Wilkins, Salt and Diakite provided Monday can go a long way in making up for any lack of offensive talent Virginia has inside.
Grant Gossage is the Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.