One of the lasting images of Virginia’s 2015-16 men’s basketball season is of London Perrantes, sitting alone in a locker room in Chicago with his head in his hands, mourning the best chance his program had at winning a national title since Coach Tony Bennett took over in 2009.
The picture is affecting not just because of the raw pain Perrantes showed after the Cavaliers’ loss to Syracuse in the Elite Eight. That Perrantes was sitting by himself, while then-seniors Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey took questions from members of the media down some other corridor in the bowels of United Center, was also symbolic of the immediate future of Virginia basketball. That was the day Perrantes’s career as a Cavalier changed.
“As a person, as a player, as a leader, this has definitely been my biggest jump, from junior to senior year,” Perrantes said as he sat in Virginia’s practice gym in Charlottesville last month. “All around, just being able to do different things on the court and be that primary leader of the team.”
This season, which will begin Friday at UNC Greensboro, Perrantes is one of three returning starters, along with junior forward Isaiah Wilkins and junior guard Devon Hall, for a team ranked eighth in the Associated Press preseason poll. But as the lone senior with significant playing time on a roster leaner on experience than Bennett has coached in years, the low-key point guard has had to take on a starring role for the first time in his Virginia career.
That step has required a reconciliation of Perrantes’s mellow disposition and preference to lead by example with the team’s need for an aggressive scorer and vocal leader.
“I think he’s gotten more aggressive. Everybody said, ‘Well, he is going to score more. Is he going to be more aggressive?’ Well, he did that last year,” Bennett said in a phone interview this fall. “He’ll do that a little more. But I don’t expect him to become Malcolm Brogdon. Be London. Be who you are, but do it at an even higher level.”
Perrantes does speak up in games — Wilkins calls him “our coach on the floor” — but in practice and through the fall, when he was tasked with bringing along four true freshmen and two players coming off their redshirt years, he chose a lead-by-example way of teaching. It’s something he picked up after playing with upperclassmen such as Brogdon, Gill and Justin Anderson.
Brogdon in particular favored meeting with players one-on-one outside of practice: dinners at Chipotle, where they could talk about life in addition to the stress of learning Bennett’s pack-line defense. That made an impression on Perrantes, who appreciated the advice, having been thrust into a starting role his first year in Charlottesville after moving 2,500 miles across the country from Encino, Calif.
“When I talk to people I like to bring people aside, one-on-one. They’re not going to react to you the best way when you’re yelling at them in front of everybody,” Perrantes said. “They’re going to feel like you’re trying to go at them and things like that.”
The point guard’s more gentle leadership hasn’t tampered his own game, however. Perrantes has made a point to be more aggressive throughout fall practice.
He is more likely to take shots this year, in part because Brogdon, Gill and Tobey accounted for 39.3 points per game last season, 55 percent of the team’s total. Perrantes has always been most dangerous from the perimeter — he was the ACC’s best three-point shooter last season at 48.8 percent — but he knows his scoring average of 11 points per game won’t be enough this season without an experienced cast to support him. No other returning Cavaliers player averaged five points per game last season.
That evolution is in part because of gentle prodding from Bennett in practice. The way Bennett puts it, Perrantes always has “the green light to shoot,” but the decision is ultimately his point guard’s, and Bennett won’t make a comment until after the play. It’s a push-pull between the two that Perrantes appreciates.
“As weird as it sounds, I know he doesn’t want us to be people that we’re not, but for me, it is trying to get myself to be somebody,” Perrantes said. “I mean, I’d rather Coach Bennett tell me now, like, ‘Chill, you don’t need to shoot the ball there,’ and know I have that balance.
“The way me and Coach Bennett’s relationship is, we bounce stuff off each other all the time.”
Bennett’s trust in Perrantes leading the offense not only has changed the point guard’s game, it has affected the senior’s leadership as much as Brogdon and Gill did when they were in Charlottesville. In practice, Perrantes often sits in Bennett’s chair in the huddle and directs the team before the coach speaks up.
“There’s a built-in trust with London now,” Bennett said. “He’s earned my respect in so many ways. I don’t think people would realize or recognize this, but so many times in games, in the huddle, in practice, it’s, ‘London, what do you see, what do you suggest, what do you think out there?’
“Because when he came, we were just trying to find our footing and continue to build our program. To have gone through the experiences we’ve gone through . . . to experience the exciting things, the successes, some of the heartbreaking loss, that brings you close. There’s almost an unsaid thing with London and I.”