The Cavs’ deep bench will be a boon heading into conference play

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London Perrantes has been calling the shots as UVA's starting point guard since he was a freshman. Photo by Matt Riley London Perrantes has been calling the shots as UVA’s starting point guard since he was a freshman. Photo by Matt Riley

London Perrantes was in middle school when a grown man threatened to fight him over basketball. He and his best friend, Maasai, were playing pick-up ball in Santa Monica, California, where the two grew up together. Maasai and Perrantes spent their afternoons on the local basketball courts, facing off against older men—who often grew frustrated with Perrantes when they saw how good he was—how good this kid was.

“Whatever, let’s just get back to the game,” Perrantes said after the incident.

Always the cool head.

“He was always playing with older people,” his mom, Karina, says. “Even when he was playing with organized teams, he was playing an age level up.”

That might explain why, as a freshman, Perrantes started in all but four games for the UVA men’s basketball team, handling the ball with a maturity that often surprised fans, teammates and his coach.

London Perrantes, age 5 and as a high school senior
London Perrantes, age 5 and as a high school senior

“London is a player that, when he got here, had tremendous feel and it was instantaneous when he was on the floor,” coach Tony Bennett says. “He just steadied everything…and I thought he showed remarkable poise for a first-year.”

Bennett and Perrates have been close from the start, and this continues to affect how the team plays. With Bennett’s experience as a point guard in the NBA, Perrantes says their relationship has shaped how he plays the point guard position at Virginia.

“We can throw ideas off of each other at all times,” Perrantes, now a senior, says. “He’s open to listening to what I have to say and I’m also listening to what he has to say so just being able to have that coach-player relationship is huge, especially for our team and our team chemistry.”

This season marked a transition for the Cavaliers. After making it to the Elite Eight last year, the Hoos lost their top two scorers in Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon, who averaged 18.2 and 13.8 points per game, respectively.

Last year, with Perrantes running point, he was the “assist man,” averaging 4.3 assists per game. At the start of this year, Bennett had his eye on Perrantes as the one who needed to step into the lead scoring role. But could the point guard suddenly up his points per game by eight? And would he need to?

The answers became clear as the Cavaliers notched their first few games: While Perrantes was still a key player, everyone on the team clearly felt the call to step up his game.

On a Friday night in early November, the Cavaliers were poised to take the floor for the first game of the season, a face off against UNC Greensboro that would wind up looking more like a warm up for Virginia.

But it was the first game for Bennett’s new batch of Cavaliers, and questions about the team’s season proliferated.

How will they compare with last year’s team? Who’s going to step up and fill the gap left by Brogdon? By Gill? Even Mike Tobey, sixth man of the year for the 2014-2015 season and the starting center in 20 games for the Cavaliers last year, was a regular contributor for the team. And Evan Nolte, a senior forward last season, hit key three-pointers in several of Virginia’s games, including two during the Cavs’ March 12 loss to North Carolina in the ACC Championship.

Most importantly, though, who would pick up the slack this year?

The team’s answer? Everyone.

In a 76-51 win over UNC-Greensboro, the Cavs saw double-figures from four players: junior Marial Shayok, redshirt junior Darius Thompson, junior Isaiah Wilkins and Perrantes.

While Shayok was Virginia’s leading scorer with 15 points, sophomore Jarred Reuter, redshirt sophomore Jack Salt, redshirt junior Devon Hall, and freshmen Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome all pitched in with points of their own.

Darius Thompson. By Matt Riley
Darius Thompson. By Matt Riley

After another 15-point game against Yale on November 20 and a 12-point rack up against Grambling State on November 22, Shayok has since cooled down to a solid 9.6 points per game: a key part of the Cavaliers’ offense this year, but a far cry from the buckets per game that Brogdon delivered.

Expecting Shayok (or any other guard on the team for that matter) to take the place of Brogdon would be like exchanging your Harley-Davidson for a bicycle but still expecting to get to work on time without leaving any earlier.

Bennett said much the same thing in the team’s first press conference of the season, when he talked about the Virginia team without Brogdon and Gill.

“You don’t just replace those guys,” Bennett said. “It’s not just, oh—we’ve got the exact replica of Malcolm Brogdon or Anthony Gill—we don’t. We have some different pieces.”

As it turns out, the Cavaliers have lots of different pieces.

Coach Tony Bennett. Photo by Matt Riley
Coach Tony Bennett. Photo by Matt Riley

It was 21-19 Virginia—too close for comfort for the fans at the end of the first half. The game clock read 3:09 and Yale’s Blake Reynolds was on a fast break.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this; Virginia should have been safely ahead by now. This was JPJ, after all: Virginia’s court, Virginia’s crowd, Virginia’s advantage.

Regardless, Reynolds was still on a break, and a sense of inevitability washed over the crowd.

Two easy points for Yale: Tie game.

Virginia races to get back. Reynolds goes up for the layup with his right hand—here we go—but the ball never makes it to the hoop.

In fact, the ball barely leaves Reynolds’ hand before it’s swatted out of the air by Wilkins. Thwack. The whole arena hears the impact and soon the whole court hears the resounding “Ohhhhh!” of the crowd.

An unlucky deflection sends the ball into the hands of Yale’s Anthony Dallier, and with the clock at 3:02 Sam Downey goes up for the layup Reynolds missed.

Virginia’s fans release a collective sigh, but they needn’t have worried because Downey’s shot never reaches the hoop either.

A second hand reaches out for the ball and executes the same off-the-backboard block as Wilkins, complete with an unlucky deflection back to Yale. Only this time it’s not Wilkins. It’s redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite.

Isaiah Wilkins. Photo by Matt Riley
Isaiah Wilkins. Photo by Matt Riley

UVA students jump up and down after the double play, clapping frantically as Yale’s shot clock continues to wind down.

This is the defensive Virginia team that Cavalier fans have been waiting for, albeit the Wilkins and Diakite double-block looks more like the defensive style of Darion Atkins from two years ago than of last season’s Gill.

That’s one thing Bennett, and UVA fans, have to look forward to this season. Sure, at times the team’s game is a little scrappier than last year’s squad—the Cavs aren’t quite the well-oiled machine on offense that they were last year—but so far they are holding their own defensively.

Even in tough matchups against Ohio State and West Virginia, UVA held its opponents to relatively low totals. In Ohio

State’s case, the Cavs forced 20 turnovers (but turned over the ball 10 times themselves).

As of Monday, December 12, the Cavaliers are first in the nation in points allowed per game, allowing only 47.6 points per game thus far.

Several of those games, though, were against unranked teams, and Virginia is expected to struggle defensively in conference play, which begins December 28 against Louisville, and brings in tougher teams like No. 7-ranked North Carolina and No. 5-ranked Duke.

Perrantes says he expects the ACC to be even more competitive than last year, when the conference sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament and put two in the Final Four, not to mention Virginia’s own appearance in the Elite Eight.

“We play, night in, night out, the best teams in the country. It’s a tough task to play in the ACC, and that’s what we kind of preach to the recruits that come here,” Perrantes says, explaining that young players like Guy and Jerome are eager to take on the challenge.

That’s the other good news about this year’s team: The bench runs deep.

Having up-and-coming players like Diakite, Reuter, Guy and Jerome to help out the starting five will be a huge bonus to the Cavs going forward, not to mention it’ll help Bennett groom his younger players for next year’s season without Perrantes.

With a veteran guard line-up of Perrantes, Hall and Thompson, as well as Salt and Wilkins down low, Virginia has a defensively strong starting five.

Devon Hall. Photo by Matt Riley
Devon Hall. Photo by Matt Riley

The main problem at this point? Offense.

During UVA’s November 15 72-32 shellacking of St. Francis Brooklyn, Memphis transfer Austin Nichols scored 11 points in the only game he would play for the Cavaliers (soon afterward, Bennett dismissed Nichols because he violated team rules).

As a transfer, Nichols had to sit out an entire season before being able to suit up for Virginia, and Bennett had high expectations for the power he would bring on both sides of the court, saying early in the season that Nichols would “be needed in terms of what we’re having to replace.”

In November, it seemed like practically everyone on the roster would be contributing to UVA’s offense. Hell, Virginia’s three walk-ons came into the game against Grambling State with 12 minutes of playing time left—and scored. In fact, every player on Virginia’s roster scored at least one point during the course of that game.

But what about Virginia’s offensive performance against tougher teams like Ohio State and West Virginia?

“Press” Virginia, WVU’s unofficial nickname—derived from the team’s tough press defense under Head Coach Bob Huggins—is too far ahead and the crowd knows it. Virginia, No. 6, is playing No. 25 West Virginia—its first ranked opponent of the season.

The December 3 game starts off promising, with the Hoos leading by 11 points eight minutes in, but all that changes quickly, and Virginia goes go on to lose 57-66.

The silence of the crowd after the game comes more from shock than anything else. This is, after all, the school that went 15-0 at John Paul Jones arena last season; the Cavaliers hadn’t lost at home for 24 straight games. Their last home loss was against Duke on January 31, 2015.

But the Cavalier team that hadn’t lost at home since 2015 isn’t the same team that lost to West Virginia—and maybe that’s one of the most difficult things for Virginia’s fan base to recognize.

At this point in the season, Virginia is a young team that’s still figuring out what roles each player is going to have, needs to have.

“There’s some big questions to be answered,” Bennett said at the start of the season. “If you compared our team at this stage last year, we’re doing things that we didn’t have to do before. We’re not at the same place, but there’s definitely talent and there’s promise.”

Jack Salt. Photo by Matt Riley

Last March 27 in Chicago, 9-year-old Malakai Perrantes, London’s younger brother, decided he didn’t like his name anymore.

The Elite Eight UVA-Syracuse game had been over for hours: The fans had gone home, the arena had cleared and the Perrantes family had returned to their hotel after watching No. 1 UVA fall to No. 10 Syracuse. But the sadness remained.

“I don’t like my name anymore,” Malakai, 9, muttered under his breath to his mom.

“Why?”

“Because of Malachi Richardson.”

Richardson, a guard for Syracuse, had a banner game: 23 points, seven rebounds, two steals.

“We just thought for sure we were headed for Texas [and the Final Four],” Karina says.

So did everyone else. Virginia had the lead over Syracuse from the eighth minute of play until the last five minutes of play, including a 14-point lead at halftime: that is until Richardson’s 21 second-half points started to add up.

But in what seemed to be a telling moment for UVA’s future, Perrantes took over Brogdon’s usual role as leading scorer that night. He put up 18 points for the Cavs, 15 of which came in the first half.

It was a performance similar to Perrantes’ recent 19-point rack-up against Ohio State, where 15 of the senior’s points came in the second half.

The starting point guard’s playing style hasn’t changed much since last year. Perrantes still leads the team in assists per game, averaging 4.4 to last season’s 4.3, and he posts an average 10.2 points per game (just one point behind his average at the end of last season).

Teammates describe him as a calm, relaxed, point guard and Bennett likens Perrantes’ leadership to that of Brogdon’s, saying he is a quiet leader who leads by example.

“He just really settles us down,” fellow guard Hall says. “He’s able to play at his own pace and slow everybody else down.”

In addition to slowing the game down, it’s rare to hear him yell at a teammate. That laid-back personality extends beyond the court.

“He’s really chill,” Wilkins adds. “He’s California cool.”

The Ohio State game in late November didn’t start off well for Perrantes, who had three turnovers and a total of four points by the end of the first half. With Virginia down 12, the Hoos hustle back to the locker room, where Bennett gives Perrantes the worst tongue-lashing he has ever received in a Virginia jersey…and it works.

With only four minutes left in the game, Ohio State is up 55-52. Perrantes’ four points to start the game have grown to 14.

But the Cavs are still trailing the Buckeyes—they haven’t been ahead since the 26th minute of play.

This is a key possession: The Cavaliers need to score.

Hall goes up for a layup. It looks good. It looks like it’s in. It looks like the shot Virginia needs. But it doesn’t fall, and every white jersey except Wilkins is half-turned to run back on defense when a bounce on the rim sends the ball back out.

The ball lands in the middle of a swarm of five Ohio State players—and UVA’s Wilkins.

Wilkins battles and comes away with the ball. Every UVA player’s hand is up in anticipation of receiving it.

Thompson, Hall, Shayok and Perrantes are in a perfect arc around the three-point line. It’s clear they’re going for the tying shot.

Wilkins throws it out to Perrantes, who is standing in calm expectation at the top of the key. Ohio State scrambles to escape the knot it’s created around Wilkins and get back in formation. Marc Loving, a 6’8″, 220-pound Buckeye forward, turns from the hoop and sprints toward Perrantes, his hand outstretched for the shot he knows is coming.

But Perrantes has already set up, the ball has left his hand, and Loving is three steps past Perrantes when the shot swooshes in. Virginia will go on to win 63-61.

This is the same Perrantes from the Syracuse game; the same cool-headed leader ready to put up a basket when the Cavs need it most.

The same 13-year-old boy telling all the grown men on the court to get back in the game.


UVA’s starting five

Isaiah Wilkins, forward

“I’m stepping up as a leader. But on the court my production has to definitely increase. I can’t stay where I was last year.”

Average points per game: 6.2

Rebounds per game: 5.1

Blocks per game: 1.33

Steals per game: 1.78

Field goal percentage: 60.5

Devon Hall, guard

“I think that my role now is
just to be a lot more assertive and be more aggressive and that’s what this team needs me to do.”

Average points per game: 5

Assists per game: 1.78

Steals per game: 0.67

Field goal percentage: 32.6

Free-throw percentage: 88.9

Jack Salt, center

“Jack does a good job—he’ll see something [on defense] and he goes up and he’s real vertical and real big,” says Coach Tony Bennett. “Those are things that can hopefully help our defense.”

Average points per game: 5.2

Rebounds per game: 3.4

Blocks per game: 0.78

Field goal percentage: 60.6

Darius Thompson, guard

“With the departure of [Anthony] Gill someone has to step up in scoring and I feel I can help the team with making more plays, being a playmaker, finding the open teammate to knock down shots—pretty much like that.”

Average points per game: 8.9

Assists per game: 2.67

Steals per game: 0.9

Field goal percentage: 51.8

Three-point percentage: 44

London Perrantes, point guard

“He doesn’t seem to lose
often who he is as a player
and how he needs to play and
I think that’s one of his best qualities without a doubt,”
says Bennett.

Average points per game: 10.2

Assists per game: 4.4

Steals per game: 0.9

Assist to turnover ratio: 3.07

Field goal percentage: 45.9

Three-point percentage: 37


Last year’s leading scorers

Malcolm Brogdon, guard

Average points per game: 18.2

Assists per game: 3.1

Steals per game: 0.95

Assist to turnover ratio: 2.21

Field goal percentage: 45.7

Free-throw percentage: 89.7

Three-point percentage: 39.1

Anthony Gill, forward

Average points per game: 13.8

Rebounds per game: 6.1

Blocks per game: 0.6

Field goal percentage: 58

Free-throw percentage: 74.6

London Perrantes, point guard

Average points per game: 11.0

Assists per game: 4.3

Steals per game: 1.1

Assist to turnover ratio: 2.39

Field goal percentage: 43.9

Free-throw percentage: 80.3

Three-point percentage: 48.8

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