Tuesday, November 9, 2010

bastaball, part 1

It's Maryland week, oddly late in the season for it, and I thought about mailing it in and just writing SCREW THE TERPS until it was time for the game preview, but nah. Maybe let's talk basketball instead.

Last year, despite having a totally new coach and no idea how his methods would play out, I felt frisky enough to make a few predictions, some of which even came true:

- The team would score more than 45 points in every game. (They did, and that was in response to a Doug Gottlieb column where he - I think at least half-seriously - suggested that'd be about their average.)
- The team would make a postseason tournament beyond the ACC one. (They probably would have played in the CBI had the administration shown an interest, but it costs money to play in that tournament.)
- The team would finish higher than 11th (their '08-'09 showing.) That was the big guarantee, and I was looking really fucking smart about that until they wrapped up the regular season with a truly epic nine-game losing streak. They still did, technically, finishing in a three-way tie at next-to-last and earning the 9th seed in the ACC tournament.

Last year I offered up a best-case and worst-case scenario for each player, and I'll do that again this year. The problem last year was that the worst-case scenario was exactly what happened to too many players:

- Mustapha Farrakhan was indeed wildly inconsisent, just as he had been the previous year.
- Jamil Tucker got benched. Then he left.
- Sammy Zeglinski, like Mu, reprised his previous-year performance.
- Sylven Landesberg only marginally improved his jump shot and the remainder of his game besides driving to the hoop. Then he left.
- Tristan Spurlock glued his ass to the bench by not learning how to play Bennett's defense. Then he left.
- Solomon Tat actually played.

In some cases, it was worse than the worst-case. I definitely did not foresee Will Sherrill playing significant time, though I did suggest that if any of the walk-ons did play much it would foretell difficulties in the extreme. And lo it came to pass. This is why they lost 16 games.

But it wasn't all bad. Some of the best-cases played out as well:

- Jontel Evans proved a quality defender and dependable with the ball....at least until he aimed it at the basket.
- Sammy Zeglinski had an astoundingly good first half of the season. Both his best- and worst-cases came true, weirdly.
- Jeff Jones shot the ball very well. (But then he left.)
- Mike Scott generated 8 double-doubles, and missed three more by just one board.

This is why they looked so good in the early going.

This year, predictions are going to be a lot harder to come by. More than half the team is freshmen. Think about that. It means a lot of facepalm basketball, plenty of inconsistency, and a couple blowout losses. But all these guys are Tony Bennett's kind of guys, and the biggest surprise of all would be to see any of them benched for slackitude. We will, though, offer best- and worst-cases again. It'll be an interesting what-was-I-thinking kind of exercise next year, no doubt, to go through and see how I did, but I'm doing it anyway. Half today, half tomorrow. (Sorry, scrappy walk-on Thomas Rogers. I'm leaving out the walk-on this year. Just got nothing to go on, and besides, he got only garbage time in the Roanoke exhibition.) As with last year, in numerical order....

#1 - Jontel Evans

Best-case: Develops a jumper that falls at least often enough to keep defenders honest. Indispensible defender.

Worst-case: Still can't shoot, and loses the handle too much.

Evans defended his way into the rotation last year, and defense - particularly on-ball defense - will probably always be his trademark. He's gonna get his steals. The nice thing about being a good defender is that it's not a skill that leaves you. Question is, will he ever be able to shoot? Maybe he used up too much good-shooting karma in one wild, miraculous, buzzer-beating heave against Miami that arced damn near into the rafters and dropped straight through the net.

Whatever the case, opponents quickly learned that Evans was best left alone. He was dared to shoot and usually either didn't, or missed. And he can't shoot free throws, either. Otherwise his point guard skills are strong; the defense having already been mentioned, he's also not a bad distributor and takes good care of the ball. If Evans can develop even just enough offense of his own to go along with his defense, it'll be a big leap forward for the team. With Sammy Zeglinski out early, Evans will have every opportunity to take the reins and be the leader that the starting point guard is expected to be. The ability to put the ball in the net from further out than a layup, and doing it often enough to keep defenses honest when he's on the court, will round him out very nicely.

#2 - Mustapha Farrakhan

Best-case: On the plus side of inconsistent.

Worst-case: On the minus side of inconsistent, and sees his minutes get eaten up by freshmen as the season wears on.

Mu is a senior now, and you know what you're getting out of him. Hoping for him to suddenly drop his inconsistent self, especially when his teammates these days are mostly freshmen and therefore likely to be plenty inconsistent themselves, is just kidding yourself. Mu is going to, at times, electrify the crowd, and at times he will be a brick factory.

The hope is that growing into a senior will make the hot streaks last longer than the cold ones. I'm not too confident about that, but the saving grace is that as a junior, the non-shooting aspects of his game did improve rather significantly. He's gotten to the point where, if he's hitting jumpers he's one of the best players on the court, and if he's not, at least that's the only way he's hurting the team. But the fact remains, his primary job is hitting shots. If he can't do that, chances are he'll watch his minutes diminish.

#4 - Will Regan

Best-case: Early development into the quintessential glue guy. Top-notch post-defender.

Worst-case: Redshirts.

Tony Bennett is talking about the possibility of redshirting a frontcourt guy, and while Akil Mitchell is usually the name mentioned along those lines, Regan wouldn't surprise me either. Might surprise me less. Regan only played eight minutes in the Roanoke exhibition.

Keep in mind, that's worst-case for this season. It means we get no contribution from him in '10-'11, but that's really not the worst thing that can happen in the big picture.

But if he does play, it means he's playing defense. Regan will get his buckets largely by brute force and the occasional SUPRIZE three-pointer, not slick post moves. He can in fact shoot, as evidenced by Michigan and John Beilein's heavy recruitment, but I don't get the idea he'll be asked to be all over the court like that just yet. Learn the interior requirements first, young grasshopper. If Regan doesn't redshirt, and he can come in, defend the post, grab lots of rebounds, get a putback bucket or two, and basically be a serviceable replacement to give Mike Scott a breather, we'll be on the right track here.

#5 - Assane Sene

Best-case: Big-time rebounder, scary shot-blocker, provider of a little bit of timely big-man offense. Also, fouls less.

Worst-case: Still drops everything thrown his way.

As with Farrakhan, we know what we're getting here. Or at least, we know what we're not getting here, and that's a dominant offensive player. Sene was a total black hole on offense last year, with the worst hands most of us had ever seen. Passes into the post were out of the question; you just hoped the ball would stick to his hands on a rebound, let alone an entry pass. Only three times did Sene score more than two points last year.

That best-case is exactly what I wrote last year, and with good reason. For one, Sene committed an unreal 6.3 fouls per 40 minutes last year. We don't need to rely on Sene to score, but if a seven-foot guy can't be better than most people on the court at getting rebounds, then something is wrong. He's shown flashes of a rebounding ability, but with the consistency of Mustapha Farrakhan shooting a 3 from the corner.

It's really a make-or-break year for Sene. If he can't be a rebounder and a shot-blocker and stay out of foul trouble when given significant minutes, he'll be passed up on the depth chart by the crowd of freshmen. His minutes will go to Regan and James Johnson, and he'll be on the court next year only because of a lack of depth, not for what he really brings. But if he can be the kind of difference-maker that only a seven-footer can - that is, alter the opposition's offensive game plan when he's in the game - he might just be one of the most important guys on the court.

#12 - Joe Harris

Best-case: Can shoot.

Worst-case: Can't shoot.

Seems to come down to shooting a lot, doesn't it? It's been this team's biggest weak point the past few years, and that's really saying something. Harris was recruited because he's supposedly exceedingly good at putting the ball in the basket from long distances, and early returns are promising on that point. Whether or not he's also good at things like defense and passing and stuff, we don't really know yet and won't really care until we know whether he can shoot. (Tony Bennett's thought process goes precisely the opposite direction, by the way, but there isn't enough backcourt depth to keep Harris off the court.)

Harris will instantly become one of the team's most popular players if he shows a knack for hitting three-pointers. Keith Friel is still one of the decade's most popular players. If he doesn't, he'll absolutely be the most nondescript guy we got. So no pressure.

#13 - Sammy Zeglinski

Best-case: Thinks the second half of the season is the first half, because he missed the first half, and plays like the first-half Sammy of old.

Worst-case: Slowed, Majestic Mapp-style, by the surgeries he's had, and loses his shooting touch entirely. Gets hurt again.

Sammy's torrid start to the season was a huge reason UVA was figuring prominently in January bracketology predictions, and his drop off a cliff sometime around mid-January was a huge reason UVA didn't go to any postseason at all. Unfortunately he'll be out til around that mid-January time-frame, recovering from knee surgery.

When he returns, he'll bolster an exceedingly young point guard rotation. Sammy established himself as someone who could be trusted without reservation with the ball in his hand, until his shot stopped dropping. That seemed to affect the rest of his game, too. Mike Scott is very emotional, Mu is streaky, and Will Sherrill doesn't have the ball in his hands very often - those are your three captains, but Sammy is best equipped to be the steady, calming veteran presence on the court. I think he'll do very well in that role, and in addition he's got a good nose for loose balls and is a better-than-average rebounder for a guard. So, shooting or not, he's become a more or less indispensible member of the team, and one of the few that you can establish a good baseline for. (That two of these - Evans being another - are point guards, bodes well.)

Still, at this point most folks are going to be holding their breath a little. Nobody likes being hit with an injury-prone tag, and the Majestic Mapp reference is a little unfair, but Sammy's kind of getting there. Fortunately, the injuries are unrelated, but a reinjury would be one of the more unfortunate things that could happen.


Tomorrow: Part two, with Mike Scott and most of the freshmen.

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