CHARLOTTESVILLE — Word about Virginia’s scout team began trickling out midway through last season, how it might be better than the group of Cavaliers who were busy overachieving in ACC play during the 2012-2013 men’s basketball campaign.
With South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill sitting out the year because of NCAA rules and guard Malcolm Brogdon taking a medical redshirt because of a serious foot injury, the two were relegated to playing against their teammates every day in practice. Whether the rumors were true is up for debate, but the impression they made heading into this season is unmistakable.
“They used to kill it. There were days where they would kill us,” said senior Akil Mitchell, a third-team all-ACC selection last season. “They would be fresh. We’d be right after a road game and they would just destroy us in practice, and it makes you step up your game that much more because you know that those guys can play.”
All that talent will finally appear on the court at John Paul Jones Arena on Friday night, when No. 24 Virginia begins its regular season against James Madison. Brogdon and Gill are both likely to be in the starting lineup, and though the reasons why each hasn’t played a competitive basketball game in more than 20 months are different, the duo could be the linchpin to whether the Cavaliers can live up to their considerable preseason hype.
Brogdon will likely be the team’s starting point guard, a 6-foot-5 playmaker capable of bulling his way into the lane or finding teammates in open spots. Whether he can guard opposing point guards remains a question, but his combination of size and skill will ensure he won’t be the offensive liability senior Jontel Evans was a season ago.
Based on his preseason performances, the 6-8 Gill could end up being Virginia’s second-best offensive option aside from star Joe Harris because of the way he can draw contact and get to the foul line. Coach Tony Bennett has called his rugged and aggressive style a natural fit with college basketball’s new defensive rules, which are aimed at increasing scoring.
More importantly, the two players forged a bond through their own competitive nature. Bennett has always admired how Brogdon’s team almost always seems to win in practice, no matter whom he’s playing alongside. Brogdon, meanwhile, describes Gill as so competitive and physical that “a lot of guys don’t like playing against [him].”
“We had a lot of fun playing together and I think that really helped our chemistry in terms of this year,” Brogdon said. “For the future, I think we have really good chemistry and it’s gonna work out well.”
When told of this last month at the ACC’s media day, Bennett cracked: “Yeah, they’re both rusty. How’s that for chemistry?”
“They’re very competitive. They work hard. They’re hungry to do it. But when you sit out --- one for an injury, one for a transfer — you’re gonna be a little off, timing-wise, and I’m looking at them now. When they’re on the scout team: ‘Oh nice job. I wish you were on this first team.’ Well now they’re on there and I’m watching everything and I’m like: ‘You’re not giving the effort. You’re out of a stance. You’re sloppy.’ ”
“I’m really seeing more of their warts and I tell them that. But that’s to be expected for guys that haven’t been looked at that hard and been competitive for as long as they haven’t.”
That sort of honesty is why Gill, a former high school teammate of Mitchell, ended up picking Virginia over North Carolina and Ohio State after South Carolina fired former Coach Darrin Horn following the 2011-12 season. Gill averaged 7.6 points and 4.7 rebounds and started 25 games as a true freshman, but the wait to return to the court was almost unbearable, even though he knew exactly what he was getting into almost two years ago.
To compensate, Gill would often treat his pregame workouts with associate head coach Ritchie McKay as if it were that night’s contest, his adrenaline pumping as he heard the crowd trickle into John Paul Jones Arena. Still, despite his considerable talents, he needed to adjust to Bennett’s system.
“It was new to me at first, just to understand what Coach Bennett was doing with the defense,” Gill said recently. “When I came here, they told me it was gonna a defensive-based thing. I didn’t understand that. I was all offense. But I really started to understand that I needed to play defense in order to become a great player.”
Unlike Gill, Brogdon initially believed he would make it onto the court last season after breaking a bone in his foot at the end of a freshman campaign in which he averaged 6.7 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game. The recovery was only supposed to take six months, but last December, with his foot still not healed, Bennett made the decision to shut Brogdon down and take a medical redshirt.
The process became more difficult for Brogdon once he finally felt healthy again midway through ACC play, particularly as he watched Virginia lose several close games down the stretch and fall short of an at-large NCAA tournament berth. But on the cusp of his long-awaited return, Brogdon now has gained perspective on the situation.
“It was a blessing in disguise, but it was also a struggle from the beginning,” he said. “Getting hurt and knowing I’d have to redshirt was a struggle because I had to watch my teammates play and watching games that I felt like I could help us win.
“Just watching areas that I felt like I was needed and I could really help, I just wasn’t there for my team. But I felt like it strengthened me and it helped my teammates, because people had to step up and play better. I feel like it helped everybody in the long run.”