The turnovers drove Virginia Coach Tony Bennett nuts.
Often, when guard Malcolm Brogdon would lose the ball, it wouldn’t even make sense — a careless dribble off his foot or a pass directly into the hands of the opposition. During a month-long stretch of nonconference play, he committed at least two turnovers every time out.
Through it all, though, nobody played more minutes than Brogdon, who is the only Virginia player other than senior Joe Harris to start every game this season. Getting through the mistakes, Bennett says now, was a necessary evil for the long term.
“We only have so many perimeter guys and even though there were some breakdowns or whether it was cold shooting nights or turnovers, he was still doing positive things and you could see it in practice,” Bennett said this week. “You have to project. For us to play our best basketball, he’s got to be a part of that.”
Brogdon still leads the team in turnovers per game heading into Saturday’s rematch with Florida State (12-4, 3-1), two weeks after the Cavaliers beat the Seminoles, 62-50, in Tallahassee. But Virginia’s surge since ACC play began has coincided with his re-emergence as one of the program’s most potent, and multi-dimensional, weapons.
In four conference games — three resulted in double-digit wins for Virginia (12-5, 3-1) — the redshirt sophomore has led the team in scoring twice and averaged 13.8 points and 4.8 rebounds. More importantly, he has turned the ball over just three times against ACC competition.
That it took so long to find a groove is understandable given the circumstances.
Brogdon was forced to redshirt during the 2012-13 campaign after a foot injury suffered at the end of his freshman campaign lingered into last season, and Bennett said he looked rusty upon returning to the floor full time this fall. The Norcross, Ga., native has also become more assertive, and more certain about his role, in recent weeks.
He hit more than 55 percent of his shot attempts in the first six games of the season, but serving as Virginia’s primary point guard early on began to take a toll. Brogdon went just 13 of 53 from the floor (24.5 percent) in the seven games preceding conference play, including an 0-for-5 showing in the Cavaliers’ blowout loss at Tennessee last month.
However, the development of freshman London Perrantes has allowed Bennett to move Brogdon off the ball more often, and defenses have struggled keeping his 6-foot-5, 217-pound frame from penetrating into the lane.
“I’m trying to get the mind-set of attacking the rim instead of settling for open jump shots,” Brogdon said. “I think that will help me and benefit the whole team if I do that, if I’m aggressive early at the rim and open things up for us.”
Bennett marvels most at the way Brogdon uses his large hands to corral rebounds, and Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton is the only guard in the ACC with more defensive rebounds than him this season. Brogdon is averaging 5.2 rebounds per game, second behind only forward Akil Mitchell on Virginia, and it’s a big reason why the Cavaliers lead the conference in defensive rebounding percentage thus far.
“He’s one of the best guard rebounders that I’ve seen,” Bennett said. “For a guy who doesn’t have a great vertical, he just has a knack for snatching those things with his hands and using his strength.”
But Brogdon’s finest moment this season might have been spearheading Virginia’s comeback attempt in a 69-65 loss at No. 23 Duke on Monday night.
After the Cavaliers trailed by 11 with less than four minutes to go, it was Brogdon who knifed his way into the paint for five straight points to give Virginia its first lead of the game with just 37 seconds remaining.
That his team ultimately fell just short might not be the most important story line long term.
“It’s been good to see him round into shape here as far as more efficiency,” Bennett said. “He definitely looks like he’s taking a step in the right direction.”