Off to its first 3-0 start in coach Tony Bennett’s six-year tenure at Virginia, the No. 9 men’s basketball team will face its first true test of the season Friday when it hosts George Washington.
The Colonials (2-0, 0-0 A-10), who made the NCAA Tournament a year ago, are considered a real threat out of the Atlantic-10 Conference. They opened this season with a 52-point win against Grambling State, followed by a 17-point win at Rutgers.
“I know what’s coming on Friday at George Washington,” Bennett said. “They’re a tournament team and went up to Rutgers and beat them handily. They have legitimate size and are a good program and a well-coached team. We’ll have to be ready to play, and certainly we’re looking forward to it.”
Senior forward Darion Atkins and junior guard Justin Anderson are especially looking forward to the game. Both players will face old high school teammates, two of the Colonials’ leading scorers. Atkins played with junior guard Joe McDonald at the Landon School, while Anderson played with junior forward Kevin Larsen at Montrose Christian.
“We have been talking about this game all offseason,” Anderson said about Larsen. “That’s my boy right there.”
Averaging 9.0 rebounds per game, Larsen will be leading a frontcourt which has dominated the boards in George Washington’s first two games. The team is out-rebounding its opponents by a margin of 16.5.
“I think it’s a really big step up in competition,” Atkins said. “They’ve got a lot of experience, they play physical, and it’s going to be a great test on Friday.”
Friday will mark the end of a four-game, eight-day stretch for the Cavaliers to start the season. Fatigue, however, will not be an excuse for the players.
“We are not worried about that,” Anderson said. “The moment we start worrying about everything outside of who we are playing and what we are doing as a team, I think that could be our downfall. We are ready to take on any challenges put in front of us and we’re just going to try and keep moving.”
Countering the possibility of fatigue during the stretch, Bennett has spread minutes across a 10-man rotation — a rotation that includes two true freshmen and one redshirt freshman.
“We try to keep a great rotation of fresh guys coming in,” Atkins said. “Our freshmen, they’re playing pretty experienced. They are not making the mistakes we thought they would make. We are using our depth to our advantage, and everyone is playing well so far.”
It is the upperclassmen though — not the freshmen — who have been carrying the offensive load so far. Anderson and fellow juniors guard Malcolm Brogdon and forward Anthony Gill lead the Cavaliers in scoring, with each averaging in double digits.
In particular, Anderson has shown significant offensive improvement since a year ago, mostly due to the development of what appears to be a consistent three-point shot. The junior guard averaged just shy of 8.0 points per game a year ago, but has increased that average to 15.3 in the first three games this season.
“Justin really tried to develop a consistent shot, and it certainly looks better.” Bennett said. “I want him impacting the game in a bunch of ways. That’s important for us. If he can continue to be consistent it’ll stretch the floor for us.”
With a 62.5 percent three-point percentage thus far, Anderson leads a Virginia team that has been consistent from three thus far. Facing a lot of zone defense early on, the Cavaliers have had many open shots with set feet. The team has capitalized on the open looks, knocking down 47.7 percentage of its three-point attempts.
Defensively, Virginia has stuck to what it does best with the pack-line defense, and it has been effective. The Cavaliers, however, will still need to do some more fine-tuning before facing George Washington.
“I think all of them are better, but they’re not there yet,” Bennett said. “Defense, you’re always on. I tell them, ‘You can’t lapse,’ and there’s a few too many lapses, but there’s less than there have been in the past, so we’ll say that’s progress.”
Ultimately, the game will be an interesting gauge to see how far Virginia has come since its ACC Championship season a year ago, and the players are ready for the test.
“They’re going to prepare hard, we’re going to prepare hard and we can’t wait to accept the challenge when they come into JPJ,” Anderson said.
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. for Friday at John Paul Jones Arena.