Even though Virginia didn't make the big tournament this year, nor get to the ACC tourney semifinals, I would argue this: any season in which expectations are exceeded is a success. And the Hoos did exactly that. Picked seventh in the ACC in the preseason and given a projected record of 19-12, 9-9 by Ken Pomeroy, Virginia surpassed both with a four seed in the ACC tournament and a 21-9 record. It still only resulted in an NIT bid, but I don't hate that. When you've gotten to where the NIT is your floor instead of your ceiling, your program is in the right place. Some might say you shouldn't ever be happy with the NIT, but even Kentucky can't claim to be immune to NIT-dom.
Not forgetting this, either: The Hoos swept both VT and Maryland and beat all three Triangle teams. I'm OK with a season where that happens.
The preseason preview was split into two parts with a bit for each player, so let's mirror that approach today and have a chat about how everyone's year went.
#1 - Jontel Evans
As the team's only scholarship senior, Evans came in with a pretty well-established reputation. This year - on offense particularly - he took just about every piece of that reputation to its extreme. Known as a dicey free-throw shooter who refused to take three-pointers, but who ran the offense better than any other PG on the team and could get to the rim (albeit with sometimes questionable finishing abilities due to an insistence on finishing what he started regardless of the obstacle), Bub took those peaks and valleys and enhanced them all. The bad: Opponents played five feet off of him. If Ole Miss's Marshall Henderson had the greenest light ever (as per LeBron), Jontel had the reddest one. He took two threes all year, both desperation heaves at the end of a shot clock, or actually in the case of the one that went in, the end of a half. From halfcourt. It was reminiscent of his end-of-half shot against Miami a couple years ago that must have brushed a rafter in the gym, so high did it go. The fact that this year's crazyheave actually went in is one of the Jonteliest things to ever happen.
The other bad is that he was a touch turnover-prone, and his free throw shooting was appalling. But his defense was just as we've come to expect. It didn't improve over last year, but then, it didn't have much room to, and the difference between Evans and the other point guards was clear whenever he was off the court. And he definitely had a senior's feel for the offense. His season-high assist total was eight, which he hit three times, and had five games of seven assists as well. Solid stuff for the pace we play.
Absurdly early outlook for next year: We of course wish him well wherever his basketball career takes him. Evans is a likely candidate to carve out an overseas career, at least for a little while. The race to take his place will be interesting to watch. It'll be nice to have a PG whose shot opponents respect, but there'll be times Evans will be missed as well.
#2 - Paul Jesperson
Jesperson's leap from '11-'12 to '12-'13 was cosmic, partly because his freshman season saw him more or less unready for the college game. So it was a terrific thing to see him become a useful player instead of "that guy who was supposed to redshirt and now we know why."
Jesperson started 33 games this year and was a fixture in the starting lineup despite being one-dimensional at times on offense. You know how Tony Bennett loves defense, and Jesperson put forth quite a bit of effort there. His long, 6'6" frame was useful for harassing opposing shooting guards, and his positioning does a good job of making up for the deficit of athleticism he faces as compared to most other shooting guards. The NC State game - the regular season one - was the best exhibit of this. Jesperson didn't score in that game, but he chased Scott Wood around every screen and turned a 44% three-point shooter into a waste of shots.
Jesperson's own three started off the season on a torrid pace, but that slowed down as the season went on. His shot got flat and would leave him for entire games at a time. He only shot 35% from three after ACC play began, though his 4-for-4 showing at Maryland was more than appreciated. Every so often, too, he'd flash the ability to make a move at the rim you'd forgotten that he had. Overall, though, when Jesperson's shot wasn't falling he wasn't much use on offense. When it was, Virginia was a scary dangerous team.
Absurdly early outlook for next year: Assuming Malcolm Brogdon is back in the rotation next year, it's Jesperson's minutes that seem most likely to suffer. If and when he does come back, it's hard to see Jesperson starting 30+ games and getting 26 minutes per. He could lose as many as 10 minutes from that. But he can also stave off the slide if he fixes his shot and proves irreplaceable on defense. As Will Sherrill proved, Tony rewards guys who know where they're supposed to be on the court, and Jesperson does.
#4 - Taylor Barnette
Of all the preseason predictions I made, Barnette's was probably the most accurate. In sum, it went something like: Emergency point guard that we'd rather not have to use and fringe rotation guy. Which is exactly what happened.
It turns out Barnette isn't a great point guard, really. Teven Jones was better at running the offense, and Barnette's defense ranged from adequate to major liability. The Boston College game that we lost, BC made a big game-changing run with Barnette in the game that ended as soon as Barnette was pulled.
But. Barnette did have game-changing ability in a good way. Three times, Barnette hit three three-balls in a game, and our average margin of victory in those games was 28. That would be the home games against Clemson and GT and the NIT game against St. John's. He basically was the spark that turned close-ish games into blowouts. He sat out nine games entirely and in many others he got the Tristan Spurlock mid-first-half cameo and nothing else, but you can't say he didn't have a role.
Absurdly early outlook for next year: More of the same, probably. London Perrantes and Devon Hall should provide some tough competition, particularly Perrantes as he'd be a candidate to play some off-ball guard too. And of course, Brogdon will also be in the mix. So Barnette will have to scrap for minutes. But as long as he can be counted on to respond when Tony says "get in there and hit some threes" there'll be a space, even if it's a small one.
#5 - Teven Jones
Kind of an interesting story. I don't have a way to back this up but it felt like Jones never really earned the trust of Tony Bennett over the year. Whatever he did to get suspended for the first game might've had something to do with it. Jones ran the offense passably well and occasionally - particularly in the NIT - hit a clutch three-pointer that would stymie an opponent "haha we're taking advantage of your bench" rally.
But his minutes went down the tubes when the calendar turned. In the nonconference games he played (after returning from suspension and injury) he averaged almost 24 minutes a game. Evans's return to full strength had a lot to do with this, of course, but Jones's minutes plummeted to 8.4 per game after ACC play began, and that's including his 20 minutes and start against UNC in the ACC opener. In six games he played less than five minutes, and picked up two DNPs as well.
Whether that's a function of Tony trusting his senior a lot or his freshman only a little, I can't say - it's probably both. But I don't really have any complaints about the offense with the ball in his hands. He didn't have Jontel's playmaking instincts and usually played it pretty safe, which brought his assist total down. But he was a better shooter than Jontel by a mile, both from the field and at the stripe.
Absurdly early outlook for next year: Will probably have to re-earn his job against Perrantes and Hall. Like I said before: the PG competition will be quite a race. Easily the top storyline of the offseason. And I'm not stupid enough to try and handicap it from here and now.
#10 - Mike Tobey
If it weren't for Justin Anderson, Tobey would easily be the guy whose metamorphosis was most exciting over the course of the season. Early on, he was missing more shots than he had a right to. And I'm no psychologist, but it looked an awful lot like a case of the nerves. He looked tight and afraid to screw up, which almost always leads to screwups. He biffed putbacks and occasionally channeled Assane Sene's turnover hands.
Once he got it figured out, though, the skills for which he was recruited started to really, really blossom. He showed he could hit shots from most anywhere - including behind the arc. He likes the twelve-foot baseline jumper. He shot almost 80% from the line. Tobey missed five games with mono (and probably was feeling the early effects of it during the GT loss in which he was largely ineffective) but once he got back, the lost time wasn't a great hindrance. Having a center that can score from all over is a lot of fun, and his KenPom statistical profile was very similar to the freshman seasons of Kosta Koufos (a 2008 one-and-done at Ohio State) and Brook Lopez.
Defensively, his improvement mirrored his offense. He'll be better when the weight room starts to take effect; right now he's still got a little bit of leftover baby fat from high school. But he did a nice job overall. Didn't foul much and blocked his share of shots. He could stand to improve on his rebounding numbers, but sometimes that's hard with Akil Mitchell grabbing so many; plus, the pack-line isn't conducive to elite rebounding numbers from your center because it encourages the opponent to take long shots.
Absurdly early outlook for next year: Could double his minutes; he averaged 14. Virginia's offense is finally showing signs of being multidimensional, and Tobey's going to be an indispensible part of that.
#11 - Evan Nolte
Opposing coaches really hate it when you put a 6'8" three-point shooter out there. Nolte has a really nice stroke, and Virginia - with Nolte - has the ability to put a massive backcourt on the floor. It turns out that it's awfully hard to close out on Nolte, which keeps defenders from helping out - or else risks him shooting over the top. That's not unique to Nolte - most mismatch forwards are the same way, it's why I call them mismatch forwards. But Virginia, with Jesperson and Joe Harris at 6'6", and some big point guards on the way, can really take advantage of Nolte's height and shooting to open up wide swaths of the floor.
Especially against the bench players that Nolte usually goes against. The weaknesses in his game were apparent as the season rolled on: he's often asked to guard opposing fours, but he's not really a four himself and doesn't have the strength. Nor does he have the quickness to guard the league's best threes. Some wings, yes, but not the best ones. And he doesn't really like to put the ball on the floor and attack. If Nolte improves his handle, which he's got the capability to do, it would add a dimension to his game that would make him nigh-unstoppable by anyone's second string. But as a starter, I don't yet see it. There's a reason he was switched back to the bench in favor of Justin Anderson when Darion Atkins had to be shelved.
Absurdly early outlook for next year: I actually see Nolte as one of the players at the most risk to lose minutes. Anthony Gill and a healthy Atkins will make sure Nolte never has to guard any power forwards, which is a good thing for the overall mix. And Anderson already started eating into Nolte's time at the three. Nolte's minutes got less productive toward the season's end, and he's got to reverse that trend. He could be a 20-minutes-a-game kind of guy with the necessary refinements, but it's also not inconceivable that he could be reduced to a fringe-rotation three-point specialist, depending on how other elements of the rotation shake out.
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