November 26, 2020

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

Wahoos to Battle Gator Demons

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Virginia went into this summer eyeing up a doozy of an early-season tournament: The Wooden Classic in Anaheim, CA. The UCLA-organized event (named after the legendary Bruins’ coach John Wooden) featured UVA along with Georgetown, UCLA, and Kansas. Both UCLA and Kansas projected as highly-ranked teams, so the event had a ton of profile from a heavyweight perspective. It was of course also an opportunity to get Kihei back to Southern California to play in front of his extended family and friends.

2020 obviously ruined that event. For a little while it looked as if it would simply be moved to a planned “Bubble-ville” in Orlando, which, whatever. Still opportunities to clash with Kansas and UCLA. But that fell apart too, the entire Orlando complex unable to make details work for college basketball just a month after successfully orchestrating the NBA’s bubble. Maybe next year, fingers crossed.

The Hoos found a different MTE (multi-team event) to take its place, this time in the emerging Uncasville, CT bubble. Virginia fans will recognize this venue as the location where it beat UMass and Arizona State last November en route to winning the Hall of Fame Tip-Off at the Mohegan Sun.

This year, Virginia will play in another foursome there. However, it’s not a tournament setting, just a pre-scheduled set of pairings. There’s no name for the event. No trophy. No bracket. Just a tune-up game on Wednesday, November the 25th (originally scheduled to be Saint Peters, though later adjusted to Maine), followed by a headliner on Friday the 27th.

And while it’s not quite Kansas or UCLA, the headliner is a good one. The Florida Gators.

Sitting just outside the Top 25 in both the AP and Coaches Polls (the Gators come in 2nd in the “others receiving votes” categories in both), Florida will provide a stiff early test for the (still) reigning champs.

It also gives Virginia an opportunity for some payback, the first of two opportunities this fall to strike back at teams that bounced UVA from the Dance in the last decade. The other opportunity of course will be Michigan State in the ACC-B1G Challenge in early December: the Spartans upset the Hoos twice, once in the 4-1 game in 2014, and again in the 7-2 game in 2015.

Florida similarly has two wins over Tony Bennett in the Dance, but neither was a seeding upset. With that said, neither was particularly pretty or memorable for the Hoos either.

In 2012, Virginia made its first appearance in the NCAA tournament under Tony Bennett. Behind the elite 5th year performance of Mike Scott (18 ppg, 8.3 rpg, All-ACC 1st Team, and robbed of PoY by the Carolina mafia), the Hoos took a big step forward in the 2011-12 season, Tony’s 3rd in Charlottesville. They finished 22-10 (9-7), tied for 4th in the 12-team ACC with NC State and Miami. By today’s lofty standards, it wasn’t a ton to write home about, but for a new coach and a program (a) coming off a five year tourney drought and (b) devoid of the kind of 4- and 5-star talent found elsewhere in the conference, it was a major breakthrough.

UVA was running on fumes when the calendar flipped to March. The top two rated recruits from Bennett’s 2010 “six-shooters” recruiting class, sophomore guard KT Harrell and RS freshman big man James Johnson, quit on the team after December exams. Starting center Assane Sene’s season ended prematurely in January, first due to an ankle injury, then due to a violation of team rules. And breakout rookie Malcolm Brogdon injured his foot in February, ending his season early. The Hoos were down to just seven healthy scholarship players come the postseason, and one of those (Paul Jesperson) was supposed to have been redshirting.

After a hard fought 3-point loss to NC State in the ACC Tournament 4-5 game, Virginia sat anxiously on selection Sunday before being awarded a 10 seed and a trip to Omaha to face the 7-seeded Florida Gators.

At that point, the Gators were still coached by Billy Donovan, who had won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007 and soon would leave to coach Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Russ Westbrook in the NBA. The 2011-12 Gators entered the tournament with 23 wins and tied for 2nd in the SEC. Led by all SEC 1st-Teamers Bradley Beal and Kenny Boynton along with 2nd-teamer Erving Walker, the Gators lost a heartbreaker to eventual national champs Kentucky in the SEC semifinals.

The Hoos battled but were just overmatched. Virginia was forced to marathon its starters, none playing fewer than 32 minutes. Freshmen Jesperson and Darion Atkins provided 24 combined minutes off the bench but they weren’t ready for the moment, meaning it was on the starters (Jontel Evans, Sammy Zeglinski, Joe Harris, Mike Scott, and Akil Mitchell) to hold the fort against a 2x champion coach and his 5-star future NBAers. Virginia actually jumped out to an early lead behind its traditional stifling defense, but the game started to swing later in the first half when Florida dialed up a press, causing UVA’s guards to cough up the ball and create some easy baskets for Florida to find an offensive rhythm.

Florida, usually a solid 3-point shooting team, went cold from deep, making just 4 of 23 against the Cavalier defense, but the Gators feasted on Virginia’s turnovers and lack of size in the paint. Five-star underclassman Beal, big man Patric Young, and breakout reserve Casey Prather, led Florida to a 24-of-30 shooting night on 2-pointers. UVA’s early lead dissolved into an 8-point halftime deficit, and with UVA held to a paltry 3-of-18 from 3, Florida poured it on in the 2nd half en route to a 71-48 Gators rout. They would continue on to the Elite 8 (thanks in part to Norfolk State’s 15-2 upset of Missouri), and the Hoos’ season came to an end.

Five years later, UVA would see the Gators again. The 2016-17 season, in retrospect, was a bit of a transition year between the Harris/Brogdon/Gill era and the Guy/Jerome/Hunter era. Virginia’s winning ways continued without Brogdon, peaking as a Top 5 team leading into a late-winter visit to Villanova. But the season ended on a bit of a relative skid.

The Hoos weren’t lacking for talent on that year’s team, with five future NBA players on the active roster – potentially six with then redshirt-freshman Mamadi Diakite seeing regular action thanks to the early dismissal of Austin Nichols. Future NBAer De’Andre Hunter and NBA prospect Jay Huff spent the season inactive on the redshirt end of the bench. But chemistry, that’s another debate. The Hoos’ slide started with a 5-loss-in-6-game stretch early in February. Rotations were in constant flux, and the offense got badly out of sync. A three game win streak salvaged the end of the regular season, but bad news arrived in the form of an extended mystery illness for starting PF Isaiah Wilkins, who would drop 20 pounds over a couple months, struggle with energy in the games he played, and ultimately have to sit out crucial minutes down the stretch. He was forced to come off the bench for five of the Hoos’ last seven games and play with a minutes cap to preserve his energy. Despite these measures, Zay’s participation dwindled in the post-season. He started the opening win of the ACCT against Pitt, but struggled in 14 minutes in a loss to Notre Dame. Then in UVA’s comeback win over 12-seeded UNC-Wilmington in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, he was only able to go five minutes. His season was done.

Virginia survived the 5-12 upset scare to meet 4-seed Florida in the 2nd round – this time in Orlando, just a couple hours down the road from the Gators’ home court in Gainesville. Florida drew the 4-seed after a 24-win regular season and 2nd place in the SEC. Now under coach Mike White, in his 2nd season after moving up from Louisiana Tech in 2015, the Gators were playing stifling perimeter-denial defense and shooting the ball very well on offense. Sophomore wing KeVaughn Allen was an all-SEC 1st Teamer while senior PG Kasey Hill, a 5-star holdover from Billy Donovan, made the 2nd team and all-defense team.

Once again, Virginia battled tough early, tied with the Gators at the midway point of the 1st half, and down only 2 after 15 minutes, locked in a typical defensive struggle. But at that stage, the two teams went in very different directions. Over the last 5 minutes of the half, Florida outscored Virginia 12-0 and the rout was on. As became commonplace in UVA’s early March exits, the Hoos’ usually-strong 3-point shooting went cold, Virginia finishing the game a terrible 1-15, none after the first 8 minutes of the game. Devon Hall got in early foul trouble, and eventually would tally only 18 scoreless minutes before fouling out. Perrantes ended his career with 6 points on 12 shots and more turnovers than assists. Future NBA’ers Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome were both invisible.

Without Virginia’s defensive swiss army knife Isaiah Wilkins on the floor, Florida’s forwards had a good day. Both Virginia native Devin Robinson and senior big man Justin Leon reached double digits scoring and combined for 20 rebounds. Florida hit a solid 8 of 21 from deep (38%) and 15 of 29 inside the arc for an efficient shooting night. The lone bright spot for the Cavs was the play of the big men, with Jack, Mamadi, and even Jarred Reuter combining for a quiet 20 points on 9 of 15 shooting, Mamadi grabbing four offensive rebounds and Jack totaling 10 total boards.

The final score was 65-39, and the Gators would once again advance to the Elite 8 while ending UVA’s season for a second time in six years. Marial Shayok, Jarred Reuter, and Darius Thompson would all announce their transfers shortly thereafter.

Lest you think that’s the extent of our postseason history with Florida, I do have a happy memory for you. On April 1st, 1992, in Madison Square Garden, Virginia met Florida in the NIT Semifinals.

In one of the closing games of his college career, soon-to-be 1st round draft pick Bryant Stith played all 40 minutes, pouring in 27 points and grabbing 15 rebounds (7 offensive) to pace UVA, supported by a game-high 9 assists from Cory Alexander and a 15-point and 4-block performance from Anthony Oliver. UVA would outlast the Gators 62-56 under head coach Jeff Jones (his second year with the big whistle at Virginia) before advancing to defeat Notre Dame for the NIT Championship a couple days later. UVA assistant Jason Williford was a freshman on that UVA team, though he didn’t log any minutes against the Gators.

This year marks the first time UVA and Florida will play basketball in the regular season. As mentioned above, there’s not even a holiday tournament trophy at stake here, just a neutral site clash designed to toughen the programs up ahead of grueling conference slates. Only Jay Huff, who rode the bench in Orlando with a redshirt on, remembers the 2017 loss personally.

This year, despite losing two key players from last year’s 19-win team (which was projected at around a 9-seed) in guard Andrew Nembard to transfer and grad transfer big man Kerry Blackshear to graduation, the Gators are expected to bounce back as an SEC contender once again. They return a 1st Team all-SEC wing in junior 757-native Keyontae Johnson (14.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg), two rising sophomore former-McDonald’s All Americans in PG Tre Mann and wing Scottie Lewis, and proven junior sharpshooting guard Noah Locke (10.6 ppg on 43% 3-point shooting). Coach White is calling this the most athletic team he’s ever coached. Despite UVA being the higher ranked team going into the season, this isn’t a game to take for granted. White’s a good coach and there’s talent and experience up and down this Florida roster.

Once again, when Virginia and Florida meet this year, it will be a clash. The early tip time (11:30 am eastern) belies the weight of this game, which will kick off a great holiday slate of college sports on ESPN and will feature two teams who should have top seeds come NCAA Tournament time. The matchup with the Gators this season is a bit overshadowed by the Hoos’ December dates with Michigan State and Villanova, but make no mistake that when looking back on the season next year, this could be every bit as exciting a matchup as the other two, and should be treated as “can’t miss” TV for all college basketball fans on Black Friday.