Three weeks from today, the Virginia Basketball team will open their 2017-2018 campaign as they welcome UNC-Greensboro to town. Today, we’ll be looking at the man who wears #21 for the Hoos - Isaiah Wilkins - as we continue to countdown to tip-off.
Fourth-year Isaiah Wilkins is arguably the most important piece Tony Bennett has this year. This is not to diminish the contributions that will certainly come from the likes of Devon Hall, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, nor to knock the improved depth in the front court. Instead, it’s more of a compliment to Zay (one of Virginia’s three captains this season), who is about as much of a glue guy as a glue guy can get.
“He’s a warrior.” Coach Bennett said of Wilkins at Media Day this week. “You watched him battle through that last year. We talked about it so much. ... He just kept giving and giving. I haven’t been around too many guys that affect the game with his help defense as he does. He’s so instinctual and he anticipates and he’s always covering things for other guys.”
Last season didn’t end well for the Hoos or Wilkins personally, and the two were intricately intertwined. Down the back stretch of the schedule, Wilkins fell ill with a mono-like sickness. His minutes diminished - including only playing five minutes in the NCAA tournament - and he lost 35 pounds.
Without him, Virginia struggled both offensively and defensively. Already thin up front, losing a full strength Zay basically eliminated any big man offense (or at least the consistent threat of it). According to KenPom, Wilkins had Virginia’s best Offensive Rating (ORtg), meaning he was the most efficient offensively. On defense, Wilkins’ experience and understanding of the Pack Line was missed greatly as he doesn’t commit many fouls (just 2.8 per 40 minutes of play), and generally can match up with an opponent’s four or five.
Before the game played at Virginia Tech’s
sauna auditorium arena, the Hoos were 18-5. After? Just 5-6 (including the overtime loss with the basketball on the rim). Over the last seven games of the season, Isaiah averaged just 14 minutes a game and didn’t play more than 23 (against Pitt in the ACC tournament). In the NCAA first round, he played just five minutes. In the second, he didn’t play at all. It’s no surprise the Hoos struggled with Wilkins playing just 14 minutes per game over the last seven of the season.
Wilkins averaged just 6.8 points per game last season, but led the team in blocks (43), steals (33), rebounds (198), and offensive rebounds (78). He shot 55.6% from the field last year, second behind just Jack Salt (55.9%) (Jarred Reuter actually shot 58% from the floor, but in significantly less time...and he’s not on the team anymore, sooooo). A nice addition to Zay’s game last season? His three-point ability, making four of the seven attempts he took (57.1%). It’s not something that he will consistently be asked to do (especially when someone like Jay Huff will be getting a lot of playing time and is known for his silky smooth shot), but it’s a good skill to have in his pocket.
Wilkins has improved dramatically season-to-season. His first year, Wilkins played 9.4 minutes and scored 1.6 points per game, shooting 39.6% from the field. Wilkins played behind (and learned a lot from) Darion Atkins his first year, a player he called “the greatest teammate” he’s had in his “entire life”. In his second year, his minutes jumped to 21.4, and he scored 4.6 points per game and shot 51.8%.
But beyond all the numbers and stats, Wilkins is just one of those guys that brings something else to the court. He’s the guy that dives for the loose ball. He’s the guy that releases the primal roar after a big block. He’s the guy to hype up the team, but also the one to make them laugh. A healthy Wilkins is a healthy Virginia.
Luckily for the Hoos, Wilkins is healthy.
“I appreciate it,” Wilkins said of his senior season. “I’m having fun, I don’t have any worries, I’m not sick, none of that stuff. I’m just looking for one more ride.”
Wilkins dropped 35 pounds during his illness, dropping him below 200 pounds. How much of that has he gotten back?
“Thirty-five, man!” Wilkins yelled with a smile. “I’m back. I’m regular out here. They can’t stop me.”
This season, Wilkins will have more support in the front court. Salt is in his third year and is poised to make a jump. Mamadi Diakite has a year of play and two years of time in the system under his belt. Redshirt first year Jay Huff has unbridled potential. Wilkins (and all of Virginia’s players, to be quite honest) will have to step up offensively, but his biggest impact will come in all facets of the game - blocks, steals, assists, rebounds, and hustle plays.
“Yeah, I think he is an elite glue guy,” Bennett stated.
You and me both, Tony. You and me both.
Now, because why not, here is Zay feeding alpacas: