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Virginia men’s basketball has found itself a unicorn

Despite not much playing time, redshirt freshman Jay Huff has already attracted attention

<p>Redshirt freshman forward Jay Huff has begun to make a name for himself in Charlottesville.</p>

Redshirt freshman forward Jay Huff has begun to make a name for himself in Charlottesville.

It’s 3:45 p.m. on a rainy Friday afternoon in Charlottesville. Classes haven’t resumed yet, and Grounds is eerily empty. Aside from the sound of rain hitting the sidewalk, it’s quiet. Peaceful, almost. 

That is, until you enter John Paul Jones Arena.

“Last jump ball, guys — let’s focus and let’s finish up,” Virginia men’s basketball Coach Tony Bennett told his team.

The screeching of rubber soles fighting with the hardwood floor pierces the air. Within moments, everyone has settled into place on the court. Suddenly, it’s quiet — but only for a second. In the center of the court, redshirt freshman forward Jay Huff lines up next to Virginia’s starting center, junior Jack Salt. Huff is focused and takes a deep breath. He knows that Salt has done this thousands of times, probably more. The ball is tossed up and the arena is instantly alive again.  

Huff’s long arms are swatted away by Salt as soon as the ball is in the air. His lean 230-pound frame folds into his navy practice jersey as he comes crashing down and grounds himself again — recovering  gracefully before hustling into position. It’s almost like watching one of those inflatable tube men at a car dealership — when they lose air, they crumble, falling into themselves. But then they’re right back up again. And when they’re up, they’re really up. It’s hard not to notice them.

The seven-foot-one North Carolina native knows a thing or two about being up and being noticed — especially by the crowd. Fans get remarkably rowdy when Huff takes the court.

He’s got five inches on the average door frame, and his standing reach puts him within about six of a college basketball rim. Combined, these attributes make for some monster dunks — like the one from the free throw line that went viral last year thanks to teammate sophomore guard Kyle Guy’s tweet or another in high school where Huff broke the glass. Those caught people’s attention.

Oh, and he can shoot well. Like, really well.

“He’s really talented for his size … Not many guys that height have that kind of skill set,” Salt said. “It’s what sets him apart from other bigs, really — the fact that he can step out and shoot the three but at the same time can be a presence in the paint on defense. And he’s one of the nicest kids ever … [he is a] really humble dude.”

But Huff himself attributes his fans’ fervor to something other than his height and his talent — he’s reluctant to admit that people might just be eager to see how good he can get. It must be that humility that Salt mentioned.

“I think so much was unknown about me. I flew pretty much under the radar, had a quick recruiting process … and I was redshirted,” Huff said. “Then in the Austin Peay game JPJ just kind of went nuts – I don’t know how or why that happened but maybe everyone was just excited about the unknown.”

Flying under the radar is no longer an option for Huff, as the mystery that surrounded his arrival at Virginia becomes more of a reality each time he steps on the court, even if it’s only in glimpses for now. 

He’s gotten minutes in 10 out of the team’s 17 games so far this season, and, despite having only played a total of four minutes in the last five games, the world is finally beginning to see what Huff has to offer — and they’re excited about it. Well, Virginia fans are at least. Who knows what a little more Tony Bennett tweaking could mean for the promising young Cavalier. 

“This year has been interesting … Some games I play, some games I don’t,” Huff said. “Last year I knew what was going to happen —  I’d warm up, and then I’d support the team from the bench. This year has had a lot more unknowns.”

Earning more playing time takes patience and practice — two things Huff has focused on this season. His faith and his friends are what help keep the uncertainty from creeping up on him — they keep him centered. From the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship to Meadows Presbyterian Church, Huff has no shortage of support. These group have also have kept him grounded this year as the Huff hype continues to spread.

“I haven’t [gotten a big head] because I’ve been lucky enough to have people to keep me level, keep me steady,” Huff said. “I’ve told some of my friends before that if I ever start sounding arrogant to just slap me upside the head.”

He’s only played 96 minutes as a Cavalier so far, but Huff has already begun to make a name for himself in Charlottesville. As Salt says, “He’s huge and can shoot, and people notice that — that’s what a player like [New York Knicks star Kristaps] Porzingis has got too.”

Now in his third season with the Knicks, the seven-foot-three Porzingis is averaging 23.6 points per game and shooting .379 from deep — a rare stat line for a big man. He can shoot, he can defend and he can block. He’s a unicorn, according to Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant, who bestowed this nickname upon Porzingis because it’s so hard to find someone of that size with his skill level. The term stuck. 

Huff is a seven-footer who can shoot all the way out to the three-point line. He’s got the perimeter down. His inside game is improving each day, according to Salt. He can dunk, he can block and he can hold his own. He’s still getting familiar with Virginia’s pack line defense, as most of the young guys are. While there’s plenty left for Huff to learn, the potential is undeniable. 

It sounds like Jay Huff just might be Virginia’s unicorn. And from the cheers that come from JPJ when he steps on the court, it appears as though fans think so, too.

“It’s been awesome that the coaches and players have earned the respect of Charlottesville to get that kind of fan base — and for Jay already,” Salt said. “It’s an awesome experience when the crowd is into it and we’re into it and we’re both on the same page. It’s surreal.”

Huff seconds that. 

“It’s so much fun … hearing the crowd go crazy and knowing they’re here for it — for the team,” Huff said.