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Brogdon brings swagger to surging Cavaliers

Standout sophomore leads No. 20 Virginia to 8-1 ACC start

After Virginia guard Justin Anderson finished last season on an incredible tear, scoring 19 points per game in the NIT as a freshman and cementing his reputation as an impact defender, I spent the entire offseason telling anyone who would listen two things about Virginia basketball.

One was right. The Cavaliers are indeed an improved team in 2013 — a team opponents hate to face.

The other was that Anderson — not rising senior Joe Harris — would be the star of the team this season. I can only take half credit for that one. It is true Harris, who has seen his scoring decrease by almost five points per game, is sharing the spotlight this year with a sophomore guard — but it hasn’t been Anderson. It’s been Malcolm Brogdon, the redshirt sophomore who returned to the lineup after sitting all of last season out with injuries.

The Norcross, Ga., native is averaging 11.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, up from his 2011-12 averages of 6.7 and 2.8, and he has dished out 2.2 assists per game, splitting ball-handling duties with freshman guard London Perrantes. But Brogdon has really come into his own in ACC play: in Virginia’s 8-1 conference start, he has poured in 15.2 points per game on out-of-this-world shooting percentages — 51 percent from the field, an astonishing 48.3 percent from three-point range and 87.5 percent from the free throw line.

And no bucket was bigger than the last-second three he unleashed Sunday to sink Pittsburgh 48-45. Go find it on YouTube — I’ll wait. He curls up to the top of the key, receives a pass from Perrantes and unloads a beautiful shot that doesn’t touch the rim and barely even flutters the net.

But what struck me as I watched the replay over and over again was Brogdon’s reaction. He knows it’s good. The outstretched arms, the backward high-step, the gigawatt smile — those are the moves of a shooter who has no doubt he just unleashed a game-winner. In interviews, Brogdon is humble, funny and occasionally self-deprecating. But, in that moment, he was a stone-cold killer on the court. And he knew it.

That swagger, which the Cavaliers appeared to sorely lack in ugly mid-season losses to Wisconsin and Tennessee, is the mark of a team which can do some damage come March. And people are taking notice. ESPN college basketball expert Andy Katz tweeted after the game, saying, “…UVA in the ACC title race to stay…” and “…Love this team’s toughness, discipline, strong guards. Solid squad. Buy Virginia.”

The secret is officially out. The Cavaliers, who entered the AP and coaches’ polls at No. 20 and No. 21 respectively this week, are a legitimate contender even in the loaded ACC, and Brogdon’s emergence has a lot to do with it. Last year, then-junior Akil Mitchell had to play the second-star role after the departure of Mike Scott. The forward from Charlotte filled the spot admirably, averaging 13.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, but no other Cavalier scored more than 7.6 points per contest, due in no small part to weak depth and injury problems.

This year, the presence of Brogdon as another backcourt scorer has taken a huge amount of pressure off of Mitchell. Mike Tobey’s improvement and Anthony Gill’s eligibility help too, but Brogdon’s ability to make plays both in and outside the lane has been the main catalyst for Virginia, ranked an astonishing seventh by statistician Ken Pomeroy’s advanced metrics.

Will Brogdon be enough to help the Cavaliers knock off still-undefeated Syracuse when the No. 1 Orange visit John Paul Jones Arena in March? Will he lead Virginia to its first ACC regular-season title since 2007, or its first ACC Tournament championship since 1976?

Maybe, and again maybe not. But one thing is for sure: this Cavalier team is playing with a fire, an intensity and a swagger previous iterations have lacked — and Brogdon has had a major say in that transformation.