There was a time when Virginia freshman guard Paul Jesperson and everyone else associated with the Cavaliers men’s basketball program figured he would be merely an observer for Thursday night’s regular season home finale against No. 22 Florida State. Back in December, when the plan was to redshirt Jesperson this season, no one thought he’d factor into the team’s plans for the ACC tournament or beyond, either.
But plans change. Some players transfer. Others suffer injuries. A rotation can go from slim to depleted in a hurry. Just ask Coach Tony Bennett, who from this point forward will have to depend on Jesperson much more than he ever anticipated 10 weeks ago. In fact, considering Joe Harris’s broken left (non-shooting) hand and Malcolm Brogdon’s hurt left foot, all of 24th-ranked Virginia’s guards will shoulder considerable responsibilities for the remainder of the season.
Particularly in Jesperson’s case, the role adjustment will be a bit jarring. During a nine-game span from Jan. 19 through Feb. 14, Jesperson logged a combined 66 minutes of playing time. In the past three games, Jesperson has played 64 minutes. That’s an average of 21.3 minutes per contest. Look for his minutes per game average to remain close to – if not surpass – that mark the rest of the way.
Jesperson is known for his long-range shooting abilities, and Bennett has lauded the player’s understanding of what constitutes a room-and-rhythm shot. In other words, Jesperson knows when to shoot and when to pass, and thus far, he has not seemed overwhelmed by any circumstances that might arise during a close game. He did, after all, grab an offensive rebound and score what proved to be the winning basket in Virginia’s 61-59 win Feb. 21 at Virginia Tech.
If Jesperson can find a shooting groove, he could provide a significant boost off the bench to a Virginia team that has struggled to shoot consistently from beyond the three-point arc this season. The Cavaliers rank 10th in the ACC in three-point shooting percentage (31.4 percent) in conference play.
Virginia made 6 of 18 three-pointers (33.3 percent) during its 58-55 loss Feb. 4 at Florida State. Jesperson logged three minutes that day. Expect him to see far more action this time around.
What really hurt the Cavaliers the last time they played Florida State, though, were turnovers and insufficient rebounding, particularly from their guards. Virginia tallied 20 turnovers that day, 12 by halftime. The Seminoles are a solid defensive team, for sure, but Virginia players said many of their ball-handling miscues were self-inflicted. Mike Scott recorded seven turnovers. Jontel Evans had four. Harris had three.
Jesperson is not asked to handle the ball much, but it will be imperative that he is sound when he does get such opportunities.
As far as rebounding goes, the Cavaliers simply will need more from their guards than they received the first time they played Florida State. Virginia’s big men – Scott, Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins – will have their hands full against Florida State’s physically imposing front court. Outside of Harris (five rebounds), no Virginia guard tallied more than two boards. That didn’t cut it then, and it in all likelihood won’t cut it Thursday night.
In their first meeting, Florida State out-rebounded Virginia, 28-24, and posted a 10-5 edge on the offensive glass. Consequently, the Seminoles enjoyed a 12-7 advantage in second chance points.
Jesperson (6 feet 6) gives the Cavaliers some height, and they’ll need him to improve on the 2.0 rebounding average he’s posted in the past three games. The more minutes he receives, the more production Virginia will need from him on the boards.
The play of Evans and Sammy Zeglinski has improved significantly of late, and Harris appears to be growing more accustomed to playing with that broken non-shooting hand. But Virginia’s numbers are limited. Shortly after Jesperson burned his redshirt in late December, it was thought that his sole value to the team this season would be providing minutes to temporarily spell the team’s other guards and that anything else he could provide would be nothing but gravy.
But circumstances change. And so the value of a player like Jesperson can suddenly increase.
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