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​COMEY: Evaluating Tony Bennett’s sophomore class

<p>Isaiah Wilkins has been a key component of the sophomore class, averaging 20.9 minutes per game.</p>

Isaiah Wilkins has been a key component of the sophomore class, averaging 20.9 minutes per game.

Perhaps the biggest question headed into the 2015-16 Virginia basketball season was the role the sophomore class would play. Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and London Perrantes — all foundational pieces of the Cavaliers’ recent success — were returning and sure to be great. But were the sophomores ready to step up and help retool following the departures of Justin Anderson and Darion Atkins?

The answer, this year and historically, is very unclear. Recent Virginia stars have actually seen their biggest gains during their junior years. Take these examples of that second- to third-year transition, for example. Joe Harris improved five points per game and his three point shooting jumped from 38 percent to 42.5 percent. Akil Mitchell added an astounding nine points and 4.5 rebounds a game. Justin Anderson boosted his three point shooting from 29 percent to 45 percent while essentially playing his way into the NBA draft. This year, junior London Perrantes is on pace to increase his points per game by five and his three point shooting by 20 percent.

But leaps during the freshman to sophomore transition under Tony Bennett’s Virginia teams haven’t been nearly as impressive. Harris, Mitchell, Anderson and Perrantes all saw sophomore years eerily reflective of their freshman campaigns. The one exception to that trend was Malcolm Brogdon, who exploded in his second-year playing while nearly doubling his points, rebounds and assists. But Brogdon’s second-year playing was actually his third year in school after taking a redshirt during his true sophomore year.

A quick glance at the stats would suggest this year’s sophomore class development isn’t much to write home about either. Darius Thompson is the only one averaging over five points a game, but he wasn’t a member of the team his freshman year. Despite the recent addition of Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins into the starting lineup, neither has been used on more than 16 percent of possessions according to KenPom data. The pair has clearly improved since last season, but by statistics alone, “taking a leap” surely wouldn’t be a way to describe that progress. One could easily argue that what stat improvements they have seen are simply a function of Bennett doubling their minutes. Take a look.

Marial Shayok

2014-15: 14.6 minutes, 3.8 points, 1.0 assists, 1.8 rebounds

2015-16: 14.1 minutes, 3.9 points, 1.2 assists, 1.4 rebounds

Devon Hall

2014-15: 10.6 minutes, 1.8 points, .8 assists, .7 rebounds

2015-16: 19.2 minutes, 4.4 points, 1.7 assists, 2.3 rebounds

Isaiah Wilkins

2014-15: 9.4 minutes, 1.6 points, .4 assists, 2.5 rebounds

2015-16: 20.9 minutes, 4.3 points, 1.5 assists, 3.6 rebounds

It would be stating the obvious to say Bennett has built this program on relying on his older guys, but after digging around the numbers, the distinction between upper- and underclassmen is starker than I ever imagined. Common wisdom on player development suggests guys get a little bit better each year, and that if there are “leaps,” it’s somewhat random. For Bennett’s team, those statistical leaps are coming almost exclusively in players’ junior and senior years.

To understand what’s going on here, I think we have to do a bit of looking past the numbers. In watching Wilkins and Hall — and to a lesser extent, Shayok — you can tell these players are getting much better, even if the stats don’t back that up. They’re playing smarter, making tougher shots, and showing an aggressiveness that’s a level above what they’ve done in the past.

The reason I think the stats haven’t followed this year and past years has everything to do with the trust Bennett places in his older guys and little to do with any shortfall in the development process. Brogdon, Gill and Perrantes — even Mike Tobey — have earned the right to take their shots and play extended minutes. It’s their team now, just like it will be Hall’s, Wilkins’, Shayok’s and Thompson’s in the years to come. And I think that’s the type of message you have to send as coach if you want to build a great college basketball program without top-25 prospects year in and year out.

So while the statistics aren’t all there now for the sophomores, look for that leap next year, and expect it to be big.

Matt Comey is a weekly Sports columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at m.comey@cavalierdaily.com or on Twitter at @matthewcomey.

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