BLANK: Time to play Jay

Jay Huff provides a spark that will be needed in March

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Sophomore forward Jay Huff played key minutes down the stretch against North Carolina.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics | Cavalier Daily

When he committed to the Cavaliers, Jay Huff was an under-the-radar prospect — Virginia had been one of his first official scholarship offers — but for those who knew him, Huff was defined by limitless potential. It is not often a seven-footer with a three point shot comes to Charlottesville, let alone one who had been receiving interest from Duke, as Huff had.

In the first two years after his arrival in 2016, though, little came of this potential. After a redshirt year, Huff averaged only 3.3 minutes per game in conference play his freshman season, less than any other scholarship player. Nonetheless, intrigue among the fan base only grew. 

“I think so much was unknown about me,” Huff said to former Cavalier Daily columnist Emily Caron last January. “I flew pretty much under the radar, had a quick recruiting process … and I was redshirted. Then in the [second game of the season] JPJ just kind of went nuts — I don’t know how or why that happened but maybe everyone was just excited about the unknown.”

The mystique surrounding Huff and this unknowable potential he possessed only grew as Huff sat on the bench. 

As of late, the unknown has finally begun to translate to the known. Huff is receiving meaningful second-half minutes against ACC opponents, and he’s making the most of them. 

Huff has, as expected, been a force offensively. He leads all rotation players in effective field goal percentage and scores more per minute played than any other Cavalier. He is making more than half of his three pointers in ACC play, which leads the team. His mere presence now causes defenses to alter how they play the Cavaliers, forcing big defenders to follow him out of the paint.

He has also excelled on the defensive end, with the second lowest defensive rating behind Braxton Key. This prowess shows up in traditional figures, as Huff is blocking 11.7 percent of two-point shot attempts when he’s on the floor, a team-leading figure. 

Huff’s impact goes beyond the advanced statistics as well. He is a lightning rod for the team in big games, providing highlight-reel blocks against Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium and in overtime against NC State.

In spite of these successes, Huff ranks only eighth in minutes played, averaging almost 10 minutes less than the seventh ranked player, Jack Salt, in conference play. It seems only logical that Virginia’s most statistically effective player should play more.

As for where these minutes come from, one option is to limit the minutes given to freshman guard Kihei Clark. While advanced statistics love Huff, they are skeptical of Clark. Clark is last among rotation players in offensive rating and despite his on-ball skills, last in defensive rating as well. Nonetheless, Clark ranks fifth on the team in minutes played during conference play, averaging 23.6 to Huff’s 9.9.

None of this is to disparage Clark, who excels at frustrating opposing guards — an outburst he forced from Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson resulted in a technical — and whose presence on the court frees up junior guard Ty Jerome for off-ball action. Clark is likely a safer option than Huff for the Cavaliers, as Huff uses almost double the possessions Clark does and has a propensity to foul. Playing Clark makes it less likely Virginia will lose games when they are winning or favored — the vast majority of games Virginia plays. 

However, the focus for this Virginia team is not the margin of victory or even whether the team wins in regular season play at all. Virginia is fighting to prove that it belongs among the nation’s elite and that it can play basketball on the season’s final weekend. 

Even if you don’t believe the statistics, which say that playing Jay Huff more will help this team win, there is no doubt that doing so can raise this team’s eventual ceiling. Playing him now, when — as fans learned the hard way last year — results are easily forgotten, will only give him the experience necessary to raise what this team is capable of achieving. 

Jay Huff has always represented a hypnotizing unknown to Virginia fans, and Virginia hasn’t known a final four berth since 1984. Playing him can help Virginia know that feeling again.  

Jake Blank is a Sports Columnist and was a Sports Editor for the 129th term of The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at sports@cavalierdaily.com.

Correction: This article previously stated that Jay Huff ranks ninth in minutes played, and Salt ranks eighth, while in actuality Huff ranks eighth and Salt ranks seventh. It has been updated to reflect the accurate rankings. 

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