Before the start of the season, Tony Bennett wasn’t afraid to call this a “rebuilding” or “resetting” year for Virginia men’s basketball. The coach had his least experienced roster in years, so practices had to be run more slowly and upperclassmen had to take on some teaching duties when it came time to work on the pack-line defense.
Bennett’s belief was always that this younger Cavaliers team would come together; he just didn’t know when.
As No. 9 Virginia prepares to face Virginia Tech (16-5, 5-4 ACC) in Charlottesville on Wednesday, it seems the team has jelled. The Cavaliers emerged from a brutal five-game stretch that featured four road games, including consecutive contests against ranked teams, with four wins and a return to the top 10 of the Associated Press rankings.
In that same stretch, Virginia (16-4, 6-2 ACC) has moved back into the upper echelon of the ACC. The Cavaliers shot 50.4 percent from the field over the past five games to get to the top of the ACC in field goal percentage (49.6) and remain No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense (53.7 points per game). They trail only No. 12 North Carolina (19-4, 7-2) in the ACC standings.
“We’ve played some good stretches of basketball, certainly in the last four out of five games,” Bennett said.
But the real progress has come with the emergence of Virginia’s younger players. Redshirt sophomore center Jack Salt and freshman guard Ty Jerome helped propel the Cavaliers to their four wins and made significant contributions in a last-second loss at then-No. 1 Villanova on Sunday.
Salt held Georgia Tech’s leading scorer Ben Lammers to a season-low seven points and seven rebounds in the first of three consecutive games in which he logged at least 20 minutes, a career first for the Cavaliers’ foul-prone big man. Salt’s defense also played a large part in holding Villanova to 18.2 percent shooting in the first half Sunday.
Jerome, meanwhile, found his stride on offense and has looked every bit a capable backup to senior point guard London Perrantes. The freshman led Virginia with a career-high 15 points against the Wildcats, including three three-pointers, the game after he scored eight in a win at then-No. 14 Notre Dame.
“I just like when young guys come in and are aggressive, that’s the most exciting thing,” junior forward Isaiah Wilkins said after the Notre Dame win. “I was telling Ty in there that when we were here two years ago, [Marial Shayok, who was then a freshman] got going. It’s just about being aggressive and taking your shots. He’s proven he can do it in practice.”
“We knew he could score,” Perrantes added. “I don’t know if they knew that, but they know it now.”
Bennett, for his part, is most pleased about defensive improvement from the younger players. That the Cavaliers were able to hold Wooden Award candidate Josh Hart to 12 points Sunday and limit star shooter Kris Jenkins to eight was significant.
“I think they’re getting better. We’ve had stretches where [defense] hasn’t been the best, and I use that saying, you’ve heard it before — the defense never rests,” Bennett said. “We always talk about the good defensive teams, they anticipate well, they read things, and that comes from experience. . . . At times we moved the needle a little bit, but you just keep knocking on the door in terms of improvement defensively. Daily.”
Of course, it helps that Salt and Jerome’s breakouts were buttressed by solid veteran performances. Just as the young guns have gotten up to speed, Perrantes has grown into the aggressive scorer Virginia was missing at the start of the season. The senior had a team-high 25 points at Clemson on Jan. 14 and 22 against Notre Dame 10 days later. He averages a team-high 11.9 points per game.
The point guard has also gotten more comfortable attacking the lane rather than pacing the perimeter looking for three-pointers — though he hasn’t lost that muscle either. At Notre Dame he connected on 5 of 8 attempts from beyond the arc.
“Obviously, we took some steps,” Perrantes said Sunday. “We’ve had some good defense, made some tough shots. Just got to go back, watch tape and keep building.”