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ACC Basketball: Anderson’s U.Va. transition starts with defense
BY TAFT COGHILL JR.
CHARLOTTESVILLE—Justin Anderson entered the University of Virginia with a body frame unlike many freshmen the Cavaliers have ever had.
The Westmoreland County native stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 226 pounds.
He has added even more muscle since he arrived on the Cavaliers’ campus in June and began working with strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis.
“The physicality, God blessed me with,” Anderson said Wednesday. “I’m so happy I have that because that’s one less thing I have to worry about on the college level.”
So with strength and athleticism taken care of, Anderson has moved on to other concerns on the basketball court—such as learning Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s “pack-line” defense.
The Cavaliers will begin practice for the upcoming season Friday. Anderson joined them on a European tour that helped them bond over the summer.
However, learning the nuances of the pack-line is still a work in progress.
Virginia assistant coach Ritchie McKay said Anderson has “off-the-charts athleticism” and the tools to become a great defender. But he added that even the most talented newcomers struggle learning the defense.
“It’s all concepts that I’ve heard before,” Anderson said. “The most difficult thing a lot of freshmen have to adjust to is staying low, staying active, not resting on the opposite side [of the ball] and also anticipating. It’s something you may not have to do in high school because you get away with being lazy on the opposite side. But if you’re lazy on the backside here, you may get a lob thrown over your head and a dunk for two points.”
Anderson, who is expected to begin the season as a backup swingman, isn’t the only Virginia freshman going through the experience. Forwards Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey are adjusting, as well.
Nolte said knowing all three are progressing together makes it a bit easier. Still, he said the pack-line is unlike anything he’s played before.
“I understand [the concepts] really well, but whether I do them is another story,” Nolte said. “I think it’s a really big adjustment. I think college is in general, but when you play defense like this it made me feel like I didn’t play any defense whatsoever the last years of my life.”
Nolte said defense was the focus 90 percent of the time in preseason workouts. Bennett learned the pack-line from his father, Dick Bennett, the former coach at Wisconsin.
It helped Virginia rank second in the nation in points allowed per game last season (54.2). It also propelled the Cavaliers to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007.
Virginia junior forward Akil Mitchell said Anderson should be a perfect fit for the system. Bennett said Anderson and the other freshmen have struggled being “continuous.” He said they play in segments instead of following through on a sequence until it’s complete.
“He’s got a long way to go, but he’s got a really good upside and really good potential to learn it,” Mitchell said. “I’d say by midseason, when we’re clicking, this team will be scary because of his length and athleticism.”
McKay said that in addition to his potential on the court, Anderson has fit in with the Cavaliers off it, as well. He said that when he thinks of Anderson, he first thinks of “an incredible personality.”
He said the challenge for the coaching staff is to “let Justin be Justin.” He doesn’t want the high expectations of fans to cause coaches to rush his progress. Anderson, who played for Courtland High School’s junior varsity team as an eighth-grader, was a highly touted prospect out of Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Md. He was once considered the top-ranked eighth-grader in the country.
“If I could do it over again, sometimes I wish I didn’t get the spotlight that I had because that could hurt you a little bit,” he said. “Sometimes your head starts to get big and sometimes you may not be able to control it and you let that push over into not working on your game as hard. I got hit by that bug.”
Anderson initially orally committed to Maryland as a junior, but changed his mind after veteran coach Gary Williams retired.
After the early hype and dramatic recruiting process, Anderson said he’s finally ready to get to work.
McKay said he has proved to be a “relentless worker” who is “very coachable.” He said that once Anderson learns the pack-line, the sky’s the limit.
“The kid is so engaging. He’s so genuine,” McKay said. “He’s very easy to root for and he’s going to have a long, successful tenure at U.Va. Obviously there are heightened expectations, and I think it’s really hard to tell how he’ll do in his first year, especially in [the Atlantic Coast Conference]. But if there is someone that can get it done, it’s Justin.”
Taft Coghill Jr.: 540/374-5526