The Virginia men’s basketball team will take on Texas Christian later this evening in opening round of the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam. The Cavaliers never have played TCU before, though some of the older players should be at least a little familiar with one of TCU’s players. Horned Frogs point guard Hank Thorns played at Virginia Tech from 2007 to 2009.
Virginia will play three games over the next four days, and while the Cavaliers’ performance in this tournament certainly will not set the tone for – much less define – the rest of their season, it will provide some early indicators on where exactly Tony Bennett’s squad stands. With that in mind, here are three things to keep track of this weekend:
1) The Sammy Zeglinski effect. It’s likely that at some point this weekend, if not in Friday’s game, the Cavaliers will gain the services of fifth-year senior point guard Sammy Zeglinski, who missed the first two games with a sprained ankle. Zeglinski should be able to provide Virginia with a veteran guiding force on the floor. Sure, it would be great if his shooting consistency improved in the offseason. But he’s most valuable to this team in this season as a calming presence orchestrating the Cavaliers’ offense. Bennett said there were times during Tuesday’s 69-48 win over Winthrop when Virginia could have used Zeglinski for that very purpose. Once Zeglinski is fully back in action, junior guard Jontel Evans likely will return to the reserve role he filled quite well last season. How will that dynamic play out this year, especially if Evans continues to perform as well offensively as he did Tuesday?
2) James Johnson. What, exactly, do the Cavaliers have in Johnson? What will his role be this season? Johnson sat out last season while redshirting, which allowed him to grow, become stronger and refine his basketball skills. Now it’s time for the power forward to show what he’s got. In many ways, redshirting last season probably benefited Johnson. But the time away from the public eye also served to foster anticipation – perhaps to unfair levels – about how much of an impact he might have once he actually was able to play for the Cavaliers. So far, Johnson has gotten off to a slow start. In Virginia’s 75-38 season-opening win over South Carolina State, Johnson tallied six points (all free throws), four personal fouls and three rebounds in 13 minutes. Against Winthrop on Tuesday, Johnson recorded no points, one foul and one rebound in five minutes. The point isn’t that Johnson will not be a productive component for the Cavaliers this season. Rather, it’s that we don’t know what to reasonably expect from him quite yet. His showing in this tournament might help us in that regard.
3) Can Akil Mitchell and Assane Sene keep it up? There was nearly a six-minute stretch in the second half of Tuesday’s win over Winthrop when Mitchell and Sene were playing so well defensively for the Cavaliers in the post that Bennett elected to keep them in the game – and keep preseason all-ACC forward Mike Scott on the bench. That’s encouraging for the Cavaliers, considering Sene and Mitchell are likely to shoulder considerable responsibilities for Virginia this season. Mitchell, in particular, seems to have developed significantly since the end of last season, and the experience he gained as a freshman only will help him navigate the terrain this year. He pulled down seven rebounds and dished out three assists in 20 minutes off the bench Tuesday. Virginia doesn’t need Mitchell to score if he can produce in other areas. It will considerably bolster Virginia’s efforts – and lighten the load on Scott’s shoulders – if Mitchell and Sene can continue to play as well as they did Tuesday. Consistency, per usual, is the key.