DOUGHERTY: Takeaways from the first half of the men’s basketball season

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Virginia Coach Tony Bennett has his team off to a hot start at 12-1.

Callie Collins | Cavalier Daily

A rough end to the 2016-17 season and several key transfers left the Virginia men’s basketball team unranked and with lower-than-usual expectations leading into the 2017 season. Through 13 games, the Cavaliers have shown they’re not going anywhere, exploding to a 12-1 start and rising up to No. 8 in the AP Poll rankings. The Cavaliers are far from perfect thus far, but many things have gone right for the team in the early going. Here are my season takeaways as Virginia heads into the 2018 portion of the season.

The senior captains have been excellent and invaluable

On a team with many young players, Virginia’s senior captain duo has shown incredible leadership and poise as the Cavaliers’ most important group. Senior guard Devon Hall’s development into a go-to scoring threat has been arguably the most critical aspect of Virginia’s success. Hall is averaging a career-high 11.5 points per game, showing more aggressiveness and confidence in his shot. Meanwhile, senior forward Isaiah Wilkins continues to be the heart and soul of the team, with his stellar defense and will to fight for loose balls, earning him the deep respect of Virginia fans. Wilkins is currently tied for best in the nation in plus/minus, contributing 16.4 points above the average college basketball player. In their third years of starting under Virginia head coach Tony Bennett, Hall and Wilkins have developed into superb players on both ends of the floor, and their leadership has carried the team to many victories.

Transition offense has become a weapon

Virginia’s slow style of play has historically limited the team from pushing the ball in transition, but Bennett seems to have put a greater emphasis on transition scoring this season. The addition of graduate guard Nigel Johnson has given Bennett the means to do this, as Johnson’s exceptional quickness and ball-handling skills allows him to run the floor with ease. Redshirt freshman guard De’Andre Hunter has also been a boon to Virginia’s transition offense with his ability to get in the paint and draw contact. Hunter leads the team with 10.5 free throw attempts per 100 possessions, helping the team fix its struggle to get to the line. The Cavaliers’ will to score in transition has added an important tool to their offense as they look to complement their usual stellar defense.

Sophomore guard Kyle Guy can take over a game

After showing stretches of potent offensive play as a freshman, Guy is now unquestionably Virginia’s go-to scorer — something the team has lacked since the departure of Malcolm Brogdon. Guy exudes confidence in his shot and is never afraid to pull the trigger in crunch time. Getting him the ball in the second half has allowed Virginia to stay in tight games thus far in the season. Guy dropped a career-high 29 points in an early-season thriller at VCU and single-handedly kept Virginia in the game in its loss at West Virginia with five three-pointers in the second half. Besides his prowess from beyond the arc, Guy has also shown great improvement in his driving ability in the paint, and even more so in his defense — he ranks third on the team in defensive wins shared with 1.0. As he continues to evolve into a well-rounded star, Guy looks poised to thrive as Virginia’s go-to scorer as ACC play begins.  

Sophomore guard Ty Jerome is hitting his stride at last

The expectations for Jerome heading into this season were fairly high as the successor to longtime Virginia point guard London Perrantes. Until recently, the sophomore didn’t seem to show much improvement as he struggled in the early going. Jerome leads the team in turnovers per game and leads all guards in fouls per game, showing he is still prone to mistakes as he was last season. Particularly troubling for Jerome was the West Virginia loss, where his costly turnovers and fouls down the stretch hampered the Cavaliers’ ability to come back. His scoring hardly made up for it, as he only reached double figures in two of his first 10 games. However, Jerome seemed to figure things out in the final two non-conference games, scoring 17 points against Savannah State before putting up 10 against Hampton. Everything came together for Jerome in the best game of his career against Boston College, when he broke out with a career-high 31 points in a tough victory. Bennett has stuck behind Jerome through his struggles, and recent results show he may be back to a positive development as Virginia’s point guard of the future. Now he must find consistency.

We may not see much of redshirt freshman forward Jay Huff

To the surprise and frustration of many Virginia fans, the highly-touted Huff has not worked his way into the rotation consistently — partially because the team hasn’t needed him. Junior center Jack Salt continues to play stellar defense and rebound well as a starter, while sophomore forward Mamadi Diakite has shown great improvement on both ends of the floor. Huff began to get some increased minutes in the last couple games, where he flashed solid scoring ability amidst some freshman mistakes. As long as Salt and Diakite continue to hold down the defense inside, through, Huff may not see big minutes without a matchup advantage.

Bennett has gotten major contributions from many different Cavaliers in the team’s non-conference schedule, showing how deep and dangerous of a team Virginia can be. While some hardships are almost certain over the brutal ACC docket, the team once again looks poised for a successful season. 

Alec Dougherty is a Senior Sports Associate Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at a.dougherty@cavalierdaily.com

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