Now is the point in the college basketball season when many teams’ rotations begin to shrink. The homestretch of conference play has arrived and squads are gearing up for postseason play, when only the most reliable players will see the floor for extended minutes.
But for Virginia Coach Tony Bennett, continually paring down his squad’s rotation has not been optional for most of the season, and that may be true once again Tuesday when the Cavaliers (19-5, 6-4 ACC) play at Clemson (12-12, 4-6). Bennett said Monday that sophomore guard Joe Harris — the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder — will be a gametime decision after Harris fractured a bone in his left (non-shooting) hand over the weekend.
No. 22 Virginia already had been operating with essentially a six-man rotation the past three weeks with senior center Assane Sene out due to a fractured ankle. While Harris will not immediately undergo corrective surgery and will make efforts to play through the discomfort the rest of the season, the injury may limit his effectiveness to a certain degree.
Consequently, the playing time of freshmen guards Malcolm Brogdon and Paul Jesperson stands to increase. Brogdon is Virginia’s top reserve, while Jesperson has received limited minutes in the 13 games since the team lifted his redshirt.
“We don’t have a ton of depth,” Bennett said. “I’m sure a lot of people are in this boat. So you just try to make the most of it. And hopefully you get some guys that step up that maybe you weren’t planning on or just play a little bigger role that can buy some time for guys as they’re resting or not playing quite as many minutes.”
Harris’s hand was stepped on at some point during the first half of Virginia’s 70-52 loss Saturday at North Carolina, though Harris ended up logging 35 minutes on the day. The player said afterward he had trouble squeezing his left hand and described the pain as stemming from the knuckles at the base of his ring and middle fingers.
For the time being, Harris will play with a protective pad on his left hand that Bennett described as a thermal plaster with a hard outer shell that covers the palm and allows only for finger movement and wrist flexion.
“I’m sure it will be a little cumbersome, but it’s also got to allow for protection,” Bennett said.
Harris, who is averaging 12.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, was not made available for comment Monday.
As much as Virginia would prefer Harris be available from a scoring standpoint, the player’s potential absence might be equally felt on the boards. North Carolina out-rebounded Virginia 52-32 on Saturday, and while the foul trouble of the Cavaliers’ three available big men hindered Virginia’s rebounding efforts, some of their troubles were focus-based.
Bennett said there were times in the second half Saturday when the Cavaliers forgot to box out. Sophomore forward Akil Mitchell said Virginia’s guards “have to come back and help [the team’s post players] rebound a little bit more.” At 6-foot-6, Harris plays the power forward spot when Virginia employs a four-guard lineup.
Meantime, Clemson’s rebounding prospects have improved since Virginia defeated the Tigers, 65-61, on Jan. 31 in Charlottesville. At that point, junior forward Milton Jennings was suspended for academic reasons. But in the two games since he’s returned to Clemson’s lineup, Jennings has averaged 14.5 points and 5.5 rebounds. He is averaging 9.5 points and 5.4 rebounds on the season.
“They’re a different team with [Jennings], and so we’ll have to certainly account for him,” Bennett said.
Who, exactly, the Cavaliers will have available remains to be seen. As of noon Monday, Bennett had yet to see Harris practice in the protective pad because the swelling in the injured hand had yet to go down.
“Rotations usually are shrinking at this time of the year for most teams,” Bennett said. “Ours can’t shrink much more, because we’ve got it about as small as it can” go.