Virginia basketball’s unconventional lineup is befuddling foes
By Mark Giannotto,
Now that he is Virginia’s lone big man on most nights, junior Akil Mitchell often makes light of the fact that he came to Charlottesville as a wing player who could move to the paint if necessary. On Sunday, though, he went toe-to-toe with Maryland’s 7-foot-1 center, Alex Len on an afternoon when Virginia became the first team this season to outrebound the Terrapins.
Freshman Justin Anderson, meanwhile, simply flashes a smile when reminded that, after playing exclusively at guard during his days as an All-Met at Montrose Christian, he has been defending power forwards the past two weeks.
But playing out of position, which even Coach Tony Bennett admits is “unconventional,” suddenly has Virginia in position to earn a second straight at-large berth to the NCAA tournament in coming weeks.
“It’s a little awkward, not really the way we foresaw it,” Mitchell said. “But we’re playing good ball right now.”
Though starting power forward Darion Atkins has played just 13 minutes over the last seven games because of shin splints and center Mike Tobey will be out indefinitely with mononucleosis, the Cavaliers haven’t missed a beat.
They’ve won six of their last seven contests heading into Tuesday’s rivalry game against Virginia Tech, baffling brackelogists who must make sense of Virginia’s résumé, which includes a 7-0 record against the RPI top 100 and an 0-3 mark when the team faces Colonial Athletic Association competition.
But in recent weeks, Virginia’s approach also has confused opponents, especially on the offensive end. The Cavaliers, known for having the ACC’s best defense, scored at least 78 points in wins over Clemson and Maryland, the first time a Bennett-coached team has accomplished that in back-to-back games, including his three years at Washington State.
The catalyst has been outside shooting. Virginia ranks 14th nationally in three-point field goal percentage this year and has averaged nearly eight three-pointers per game since freshman Evan Nolte initially replaced Atkins in the starting lineup.
The mismatches Nolte and Anderson create have opened up the court. It was no more obvious than Sunday, when Anderson took advantage of Maryland’s big men on the perimeter, scoring a career-high 17 points, and Virginia tied a season high with 11 three-pointers.
“Whether it was Evan . . . or Justin, they both have the ability to space a little bit, and I think our guys, at this time, are playing really good team ball,” Bennett said. “They’re moving the ball with each other and . . . the spacing has helped.”
Virginia Tech Coach James Johnson is envious of such versatility. He marvels at the number of players who seem to be finding a groove for Virginia of late.
Johnson, of course, has his own star in point guard Erick Green. The former All-Met from Winchester remains the nation’s leading scorer after notching 28 points in Virginia Tech’s loss to Georgia Tech this past weekend, but he needed to be carried off the floor because of dehydration and exhaustion at the end of the game.
Johnson said that Green would be back in the starting lineup at John Paul Jones Arena on Tuesday. With the Hokies in the midst of a six-game losing streak that has them tied for last place in the ACC, Green’s minutes won’t be monitored, he said.
Green exploded for a career-high 35 points — the most any player has scored in an ACC game this year — when Virginia beat Virginia Tech, 74-58, in Blacksburg, three weeks ago. But unlike their in-state rival, the Hokies have little else at this point.
Second-leading scorer Jarell Eddie has hit just one of his 14 field goal attempts in the last two games and guard Robert Brown is shooting just 24.2 percent from the floor in ACC play.
“We don’t have guys right now that are putting the basketball in the hole like we need them to,” Johnson said. “It’s very hard to take [Green] off the floor.”