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Maddening losses mean little until March

The anticipation for the first game of the season for the Virginia men’s basketball team was hard to put into words. In the post-Mike Scott era of Virginia basketball, many pundits were not showing the Cavaliers much love, picking them to finish seventh in the ACC after a fourth place finish and NCAA Tournament berth last year.

The losses of Scott, Sammy Zeglinski and Assane Sene loomed large, but with three freshmen ranked in the ESPN top-100 recruits joining the team, there seemed to be hope for the future. The atmosphere on the Hoo Crew fan bus headed to George Mason was one of excitement — fans were eager to get a glimpse into the future of Virginia basketball.

We may have gotten more than we bargained for.

After falling behind early because of poor shooting and sloppy play — play that was highly uncharacteristic of a Tony Bennett-led team — things began to look up. Virginia clawed its way back to pull even at 25-all. That was before Mason freshman forward Marko Gujanicic made an improbably long and well-defended three pointer with one second left in the half, sending the Patriot Center into a frenzy. At that point we knew it might be a long evening.

The second half was more of the same, and Virginia lost the slim lead it had cobbled together for good with about three and a half minutes remaining in the game. There were a few questionable calls, even more questionable no-calls and the referees apparently choosing to enforce the NBA traveling­ — or lack thereof — rule. But the refs did not give Mason the game.

George Mason exposed Virginia. Although Virginia did struggle at times last year breaking the press, this year’s squad looked as if it had never seen a full-court press before. The ball handling was atrocious, and even though Virginia turned the ball over just 12 times to Mason’s 10, the sheer difficulty the Cavaliers exhibited in getting the ball across midcourt was painful to watch.

The problems didn’t stop there. The 6-foot-11-inch freshman starting center Mike Tobey had one rebound in his 18 minutes. I know it was his first game, but you have to figure a pseudo-seven-footer is good for more than one rebound. Also, Tobey has been praised for his jump shot, but after missing three jumpers in the first half to go along with a missed layup, you have to hope that someone will tell the big man to take the ball strong to the hoop.

The defense had to be the most disappointing aspect of the game. At times, Mason looked like they were playing against a high school defense. The basic lack of help defense in the middle that allowed easy backdoor layups was particularly alarming.

But as disappointed as fans were with the first game of the season, as well as the sloppy win in the home opener against the Stags Monday, this isn’t a doomsday column. I think fans are most disappointed because they see the amount of potential in the team. But for a young team, early-season struggles are less concerning than late-season struggles.

Obviously the lack of an experienced point guard is one of the most pressing issues. The return of the lone scholarship senior, point guard Jontel Evans, to full force will be a godsend for Virginia. Although I admire freshman guard Taylor Barnette’s efforts, he doesn’t have the ankle-breaking agility or experience yet to create for both himself and others like Jontel does.

Evans returned for three minutes of play against Delaware Tuesday evening. Evans’ full return, as well as that of sophomore point guard Malcolm Brogdon should alleviate some of the Cavaliers’ woes in getting the ball across midcourt. But that still leaves the other huge — or small — problem in the post.

Virginia narrowly managed to outrebound Fairfield 32-30, but one possession during which the Stags pulled down four offensive rebounds highlighted the Cavaliers’ struggles under the net. Giving up four offensive rebounds on one possession is never acceptable, but it highlights the lack of rebounders on this year’s team.

With the imposing presence of Scott and Sene gone, the role of primary rebounder is junior forward Akil Mitchell, who has done an admirable job pulling down boards in the first two games. Sophomore forward Darion Atkins will also need to step up his production as one of the only other experienced big men on the team. In addition, Tobey will need to adjust quickly to the speed and intensity of the collegiate level — fair or not — if Virginia has any postseason hopes.

Aside from Tobey, other freshmen have given glimpses of their potential. Freshman forward Evan Nolte has been impressive, especially his steal and subsequent buzzer-beating layup at the end of the first half against Fairfield that can only be characterized as cerebral. Freshman guard Justin Anderson’s display of athleticism on defense and rebounding has also been remarkable.

The young core of Anderson, Nolte and Tobey should all improve exponentially as the season wears on and they are exposed to both more court time as well as “Tony-time” in practice. Coupled with junior guard Joe Harris, Mitchell’s strong early-season play and the impending return of Evans and Brogdon, I refuse to write this season off as a “growing pains” year.

Granted, three games is not a large sample, but we certainly aren’t seeing Tony Bennett-caliber discipline right now, and you can bet that Bennett will fix that in practice. I believe that once the ball control and defensive issues are shored up, this year’s team will improve by leaps and bounds.

It’s a long season and Virginia still has almost two months before ACC play. Anything is still possible, good and bad. This team could fall prey to its youth and lack of size, or it could improve dramatically and make its way into the postseason.

I’m not saying Virginia appears tournament-bound right now, but it’s too early to write off any ending. Crazier things have happened in March.

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