In its final 10 games of the 2016/2017 season, the Virginia basketball team scored less than 60 points six times. This included three games where the Cavaliers scored less than 50 points, highlighted by the 39-point effort against Florida in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Virginia’s offense faced its share of struggles in last season’s final stretch. The 2017/2018 Hoos will be without point guard London Perrantes (graduation) and wing Marial Shayok (transferred to Iowa State), the program’s top two scorers from a year ago. While there is reason for optimism, the offense has some question marks. It appears to be a major reason why outside expectations for this Cavalier team aren’t as high as some Cavalier fans would like.
For sophomore point guard Ty Jerome, the main priority isn’t offense. Perrantes’ heir-apparent sees another key to this 2017/2018 Cavalier team reaching its potential.
“This year I think we’re not ranked as high because I think people are focused on what we lost instead of what we’re returning,” Jerome said during UVA’s October 16 media day. “That’s fine with us because we don’t really pay attention to the media and the outside world. I think we have the potential to be really, really, really good. It has got to start with how well we defend. It starts every day in practice. That’s our biggest question this year. It starts with me, it starts with Kyle (Guy), with how well we can keep the ball out of the paint, how well will we can pressure the ball. And then we have Dev and Isaiah, who will really lead us defensively and offensively.”
It often takes time to adjust to Tony Bennett’s Pack-Line defense. It has been a challenge for the New Rochelle, New York native, who entered Virginia as a consensus 4-star prospect out of Iona Prep. He just works day-by-day to improve, and he hopes the hard work will pay off on the court with continued improvement.
“It’s definitely a huge adjustment, and we’re still fighting to get better every day at it,” Jerome said of the Pack-Line and playing in a defensive-minded program. “You’re going to keep making mistakes, but it’s just so important to stay continuous. You have to buy in as soon as you get here. If you don’t buy in, it’s going to be a long year, a long career here. Once you buy in, you fight every day to make little strides.”
As Jerome mentioned, Virginia returns strong pieces to its Pack-Line puzzle. Seniors Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins, as well as Jack Salt — Virginia’s 2017/2018 team captains — spearhead the defensive efforts. Add in a more experienced Mamadi Diakite, and the back end of the Pack-Line looks rock-solid.
Jerome, Guy, and graduate transfer Nigel Johnson will be key out on the perimeter. A season of experience and a full offseason to get stronger and quicker should benefit both Jerome and Guy. Johnson may not have the Pack-Line experience, but he has significant college experience as well as quickness and athleticism.
“He’ll give us something we didn’t have in last year’s team and we don’t have without him, really,” Jerome said of Nigel. “He’ll give us a new dimension. Defensively first, he can really, really pressure the ball. He’s super athletic, super quick. He can bother people that way. Offensively, he can get into the lane and get something for himself. He’s a good outside shooter, too.”
Defense is Jerome’s top priority. Addressing the offensive side, the standout sophomore likes what he sees in terms of developing an interior scoring presence, which figures to be very important. A consistent post presence should open things up for a team with some very capable outside shooters.
“Isaiah’s added that dimension to his game,” Jerome said. “So far, he’s looked awesome in practice – scoring the ball in the post, taking his time, pivoting. His touch has been great. Mamadi’s really talented down low. Jack’s added a little left hook. I think we have it. It’s a matter of those guys staying confident. I don’t think it’s natural for Isaiah to call for the ball and want to score. He hasn’t done that in his first three years, but he’s doing that in practice now. If he’s open, we’re going to feed the post. We’re going to feed those guys because we believe in them.”
As a true freshman last season, Jerome saw double-digit minutes in only six of his first 18 games. His playing time increased considerably the final 16 games, though, as he received double-digit minutes in every one of those games. Jerome scored double-digit points in five games, highlighted by a stellar 15-point outing in a 2-point road loss to Villanova.
Jerome enters his sophomore campaign as Perrantes’ top replacement. He has assumed a larger leadership role, showing confidence and providing a vocal presence in preseason practice.
“London, his poise and his feel for the game was outstanding,” said Jerome, who is also known for his court IQ and feel for the game. “We’re definitely different players, and we’re different leaders as well. I’m probably more vocal than he was, but his leadership was tremendous too. He just did it by example. He was always calm, in the right spot, and he knew where the ball needed to go. I want to do all that, too.”
Being a vocal leader is nothing new for the native New Yorker.
“It’s part of my personality,” Jerome said. “I’ve naturally always been like that. Always been vocal. I love to talk, really, on and off the court. When I’m on the basketball court, it’s just natural for me to lead vocally.”