Photo: Jay Huff (30)
College basketball teams with national title aspirations this time of year are balancing health with not disrupting a cohesive unit that can make a run through March Madness.
In the ACC, the top three contenders are North Carolina and Virginia, tied for first in the regular-season standings, and Duke, one game back.
For Duke, projected one-and-done freshman Zion Williamson returning to the lineup is imperative. The favorite for national college player of the year is nursing a sprained knee. Third-ranked Duke isn’t the same team without him, despite having as many as two more lottery picks and a third first-rounder among four one-and-dones. The Blue Devils (25-4, 13-3 ACC) have lost two of four since Williamson was injured in the opening minute of a loss to North Carolina on Feb. 21 at home.
Fifth-ranked North Carolina (24-5, 14-2 ACC) hopes to regain backups Sterling Manley, a 6-11 sophomore, and Leaky Black, a 6-7 freshman. Manley missed 16 games before returning briefly in Saturday’s win at Clemson, while Black remained sidelined for his ninth straight contest.
Tar Heels coach Roy Williams obviously wants both players available, but he cautions when they’re return isn’t automatic; there is the risk of disrupting the cohesion the current rotation. UNC has won 12 of its last 13, with the only loss to Virginia.
“It’s tough situation,” Williams said. “You’ve got to be significantly better or I’m not putting you in there. The bottom line is what may be best for the team is what we already have. You try and come back this time of year, but you have to come back really good.”
And then there is No. 2 Virginia (26-2,14-2 ACC).
The Cavaliers’ relative health has allowed them to start De’Andre Hunter and Kyle Guy every game and Ty Jerome all but one along with fluctuations between Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite and Kihei Clark in the other two starting spots.
But that doesn’t mean Virginia can't add weapons in the post-season from when the Cavaliers lost twice to Duke and beat North Carolina.
Jay Huff, Jay Huff, a 7-1 redshirt sophomore from Durham Voyager Academy, is beginning to demonstrate the vision the coaching staff had in him when they considered him worth the patience to develop his game. Huff has gone from averaging 9 minutes a game to nearly double the playing time in the past three victories.
“I didn’t plan on playing Jay (17) minutes,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett of the Louisville win. “I told Jay, ‘I know you’re getting limited minutes the last game or two; just stay encouraged. You’re improving but sometimes games present different things often based on what’s working.’ ”
At Louisville (64-52), Huff scored 12 points on 6-of-8 field goals with seven rebounds and two blocks.
Against Georgia Tech (81-51), 17 minutes, eight points, 4-of-5 FGs, four rebounds and one block.
Against Pitt (73-49), 17 minutes, five points, 1-of-4 FGs, six rebounds, one block and a career-high three steals.
The 17 minutes for each game is coincidental, says Bennett.
“I always try to find opportunities for him because offensively he brings parts of his game that are very gifted,” Bennett said. “He’s working hard and getting better defensively. We put him in and try to find spots for him. He was helping us with a blocked a shot, grabbing rebounds and his play against that zone that was effective.”
For three straight games as it stands now.
“It’s like most moves, you adjust on the fly,” Bennett said. “I don’t have a set plan that this guy plays six minutes in the first half and five in the second half. It’s really by feel. Jay played well and gave us a boost.”
Virginia has gradually added a healthy weapon to a healthy lineup. The Cavs are hoping that is better than reinserting an injured player to a lineup.
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The final week of the regular-season will determine the ACC regular-season champion and No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament next week in Charlotte.
--- Virginia (26-2, 14-2 ACC): Monday, at Syracuse (19-10, 10-6 ACC); Saturday, home vs. Louisville (19-11, 10-7 ACC).
--- North Carolina (24-5, 14-2 ACC): Tuesday, at Boston College (14-13, 5-10 ACC); Saturday, home vs. Duke (25-4, 13-3 ACC).
--- Duke (25-4, 13-3 ACC): Tuesday, home vs. Wake Forest (11-17, 4-12 ACC); Saturday, at North Carolina (24-5, 14-2 ACC).
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