Because of its methodically suffocating style of play, the Virginia men’s basketball team values each possession more than most. Consequently, each turnover carries greater potential cost.
So when the Cavaliers commit turnovers in bunches — as they did with a season-high 20 in Saturday’s loss at Florida State — the results are costly, indeed.
When No. 19 Virginia (18-4, 5-3 ACC) hosts Wake Forest (11-12, 2-7) on Wednesday night, the Cavaliers hope to regain their poise, their patience and, by extension, the sure-handedness that had made them the ACC’s least turnover-prone team. As Virginia’s primary ballhandler, junior guard Jontel Evans said he understands those tasks begin with the tone he sets.
“I feel like I’ve been turning the ball over a lot the last few games, you know, with the charges and with the ill-advised passes to my teammates,” Evans said. “I just feel like, individually, I have to be sounder with the ball.”
Evans has tallied 14 turnovers (4.7 per game) in Virginia’s past three contests. Prior to that stretch, he had not tallied more than 10 turnovers in any three-game stint this season. Coincidentally or not, the Cavaliers have registered more than 10 turnovers in three straight games for the first time since this point a season ago.
Indeed, the past three games have been an aberration for Virginia this season. Saturday’s 20-turnover outing pushed the Cavaliers’ total in ACC play to 86 – just one turnover more than Clemson, the conference’s new leader in that category entering Tuesday. In other words, Virginia had been the conference’s standard-bearer in ball security by a wide margin prior to the Tallahassee fiasco, and Evans deserves credit for that, as well.
“When [Evans] gets in the lane he always has his head up, and he’s probing,” fifth-year guard Sammy Zeglinski said last month. “He notices when the defender loses vision, and if I’m sliding up and down the three-point line, he’ll find me in a position where I can score. He’s been doing a great job of getting past his defender and getting in the paint and drawing defenses and making the right decision.”
Evans is still learning how to consistently make the right decision while dashing into the lane. But he has made several strides forward from last season, when, he admits, he too often let his pride get the best of him and opted for long jump shots when opposing defenders were sagging a yard or more off of him. Evans is a career 34.6 percent shooter in ACC play.
“I’m not a terrible shooter,” Evans said. “I know I’m not a great shooter, but I’m a great penetrator. And I just decided that [opposing defenders] would rather me take a jump shot instead of me getting into the paint where I can help my team be dangerous.”
That’s exactly what he did late in Saturday’s game and what the Cavaliers hope he’ll do Wednesday against Wake Forest. During a 3-minute 18-second run in which Virginia erased a 13-point deficit against Florida State, Evans tallied three layups and three assists in six consecutive possessions. He did not record a turnover in the final nine minutes of the game, though the Seminoles still prevailed, 58-55.
And besides, as Virginia Coach Tony Bennett noted Monday: “When penetration occurs or when someone’s in trouble, you have to get to open spots. You’ve got to get to the right areas so that there are outlets or safeties for guys that get in there.” Which is to say that sometimes the passer isn’t entirely responsible for the ensuing turnover, even if he gets charged for it.
On Monday, the Cavaliers made sure to emphasize ball security in practice. In one drill, Evans said, Bennett pits five defenders against four offensive players, and the offense has to complete 10 passes without turning over the ball while being trapped and fouled.
“We do drills that help us out when it comes to the game, but Saturday we got away from that,” Evans said. “Now we just have to reel it back in and do what we do.”