Virginia returned six of its top seven scorers from last basketball season, including All-ACC selections Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell. None has played as many minutes this season as freshman London Perrantes.
The appropriate Twitter hashtags: #unexpected and #precocious.
A 6-foot-2 point guard from Los Angeles, Perrantes not only has grasped Coach Tony Bennett’s non-negotiable defensive tenets, but also provided sage direction for one of the ACC’s most productive offenses.
Yes, you read that correctly, and yes, I remembered my morning meds. The Cavaliers are scoring like never before in Bennett’s five seasons.
After Monday’s 76-61 victory over North Carolina, Virginia is averaging 71.6 points in ACC play. That’s third behind Duke and Pittsburgh, and nearly eight points better than any of Bennett’s previous teams in Charlottesville.
Granted, the 18-game conference slog is only one-third complete, and the Cavaliers have yet to encounter three of the league’s most defensive-minded outfits: Syracuse, Miami and Clemson. But limited sample notwithstanding, Virginia’s offensive improvement is evident, and a primary reason is Perrantes, an instinctive passer and capable scorer with a keen sense of tempo.
It’s those latter traits that separate him from Jontel Evans, a three-year starter at the point who was relentless defensively but erratic offensively.
Perrantes was at his best Monday with nine assists, eight points, two steals and one measly turnover in 29 minutes. The nine assists were the most by a Cavalier in an ACC game since Sean Singletary’s 10 versus Boston College in 2008.
Perrantes made 3 of 5 shots and both of his 3-point attempts, including a left-corner dagger to give the Cavaliers a 38-29 intermission lead. Not coincidentally, Virginia averaged a season-best 1.23 points per possession against North Carolina, according to stats maven Ken Pomeroy.
“I know he was (also) really good defensively tonight,” Bennett said, “because I know how good Marcus Paige is.”
Paige scored nine points, barely half his team-high 17.2 average, on 4-of-14 shooting. Staying in front of Paige, Perrantes limited his penetration and forced the left-hander to settle for long 3-pointers — he missed 5 of 6.
Good as that defense was, and as much as Bennett may demur, Perrantes is most important on offense, the component that will determine whether Virginia (14-5, 5-1 ACC) is an ordinary NCAA tournament team or one capable of advancing multiple rounds — the Cavaliers haven’t reached a regional semifinal since 1995.
“He has a calming effect on our guys,” Bennett said. “When the ball’s in his hand, he just doesn’t get sped up. He sees things that most guys don’t see. He was very complete. He was pretty good to start (the season), but I think with the experience of playing and being in these settings, he’s showing what a lot of people out west maybe missed on.”
Most Pacific 12 Conference programs shied away from Perrantes, but a former punter at Washington State, where Bennett coached previously, hipped Bennett to Perrantes. Still, with a glut of point guards that included Malcolm Brogdon, who redshirted last season with a foot injury, Perrantes didn’t figure to emerge this quickly.
But his development allowed Brogdon to shift to shooting guard, where he has become Virginia’s No. 2 scorer behind Harris and its leader in minutes — Harris, too, would have more minutes than Perrantes had he not missed most of the first Florida State game with concussion-like symptoms.
“We didn’t know he was going to play such a huge role for us this year,” teammate Justin Anderson said. “He just came in, did the solid, little things. He never talked about, ‘I’m going to start, I’m going to do this.’ … He just wins basketball games. …
“That goes along with that Cali (California) swag that he brings. That’s just who he is, and I think that’s what this program needs.”
Perrantes has started 15 of 19 games, including all six in the conference. He has 70 assists and 23 turnovers overall, 29 and seven against the ACC. A poor start has saddled Perrantes with 32-percent shooting, but he’s 12-of-24 against the ACC.
“He sees you even before you know that you’re open,” Mitchell told the Charlottesville Daily Progress’ Whitey Reid on Monday. “He’s a great point guard. He’s got his head on his shoulders. He’s really the heart of our team right now. He’s setting the pace.”
With Brogdon, Teven Jones and the since-redshirted Devon Hall on the roster, Perrantes had modest goals for his rookie season: Earn a spot in Bennett’s rotation, help the team win, limit turnovers.
“It’s escalated quickly,” Perrantes said of his role, “and I feel like I’ve responded to it.”