One by one, the Virginia men’s basketball players had taken the pair of scissors and climbed up the ladder as thousands more watched on. But then only one piece of net cord, one player and one coach remained.
Freshman Devon Hall looked at Coach Tony Bennett for a moment, unsure of what to do as his teammates laughed. Eventually, though, he took a step back and allowed Bennett to finish cutting down the net after leading the Cavaliers to their first ACC regular season title in 33 years with a win over Syracuse on Saturday.
Hall, a 6-foot-5 point guard, has been forced into the background throughout Virginia’s historic run, the lone player on the roster redshirting this year after Bennett asked Hall if he would consider sitting out just before the season began.
That Hall was asked to redshirt came as a surprise, considering Virginia had persuaded him to reclassify in the summer of 2012 in order to enroll this fall after senior point guard Jontel Evans graduated. He figured he’d be coming off the bench when the Cavaliers opened the season against James Madison on Nov. 8, competing with fellow freshman London Perrantes for playing time.
“When I found out, I was obviously shocked,” Hall said.
His competitiveness caused him to initially chafe at the request. Bennett said he would not force him to redshirt, but also offered no promises of playing time. Hall defiantly told the coach, “I’ll work for mine.”
That night, Hall broke the news to his parents in Virginia Beach and spoke with his older brother, Mark, a linebacker on Virginia’s football team. Like Hall, they were all confused at the change in plans.
By the next morning, though, Bennett called Hall into his office again. This time, assistant coach Jason Williford sat in as well. Williford told Hall of how much he regretted not taking a redshirt during his freshman season at Virginia, when he played all of 36 minutes the entire year.
“Your first year compared to your fifth year,” Bennett said of his message to Hall.
That resonated with Hall and set him on the path he is on today, watching from the bench as his team stockpiles win after win.
But it hasn’t been a lost year. Hall has lost weight and gained muscle, improved his jump shot and became familiar with Bennett’s complex pack-line defense. He grew accustomed to the speed of the college game going against Virginia’s starters as a member of the scout team during practices.
Virginia assistant coach Ron Sanchez forces Hall to hit 100 jump shots with perfect form in every workout and after every practice — Hall had a tendency in high school to not square up to the basket on his release — and most sessions end with the two sitting on the bench in an empty John Paul Jones Arena talking about basketball, life and everything in between.
“The funny thing about Devon is I think he’s seeing his own improvement in practice,” Sanchez said. “I think he’s beginning to realize where he was as a high school basketball player and the things that he needed to work on. He’s embracing the learning part. As much as our workouts are about his development, which it is, his understanding of what’s next for him is really what keeps me encouraged. He sees it coming.”
The process, though, has been difficult, particularly when Hall looks on Instagram and sees photos of former AAU teammates Troy Williams (Indiana) and Anthony Barber (North Carolina State) in game action.
Hall also has watched Perrantes blossom on the court, although he should find a spot in next year’s rotation with senior Joe Harris set to graduate. Hall considers himself a pure point guard, just like Perrantes, and his size will allow Bennett to play both together on the floor.
“It’s frustrating at times. I’m not used to this,” Hall said. “But when it boiled down to it, it was probably the best decision because I didn’t want to waste a year.”
So as Hall left the jubilant home locker room Saturday evening, his teammates still celebrating a 75-56 victory over Syracuse that moved Virginia up to No. 5 in the national polls, he held no grudges.
Asked whether he felt left out without a piece of net to commemorate this day, Hall shrugged and again deferred to Bennett.
“He deserved the last one,” he said.