Today, the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers kick off their quest for the Final Four as they open NCAA tournament action against 16 seed UMBC. Fourth year captain Isaiah Wilkins will be critical to any type of run the Hoos hope to make in the post season. Wilkins, the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year, is the prototypical glue guy. He has started every game for the Hoos this season, averaging just under six points and just over six rebounds per game.
Wilkins is an outstanding one-on-one defender and plays perfectly within the Pack Line. He leads the team in blocks with 49, and is second on the team in steals with 39. Advanced stats love him as he’s first in the nation in defensive box plus/minus, and fourth in both defensive win shares and overall box plus/minus, per Sports Reference.
The Hoos are lucky to have the 6-7, 227 pound forward, both for his on court production and the intangibles he brings to the team in his leadership and experience. A year ago, no one was really sure if Wilkins would be able to keep playing basketball.
Before a win over NC State last season, Wilkins wasn’t feeling great. He pushed through, hoping to help the Cavaliers break out of a four-game losing streak. That next week, Wilkins came down with what was first thought to be strep throat, then potentially tonsillitis, then mono, then maybe walking pneumonia.
“I was sick at North Carolina State. That was, like, five games left in the season,” Wilkins said. “It was trash.”
Whatever it was, it sapped Wilkins of his energy, strength, and ability to play. He lost 35 pounds, looked gaunt, and it was unknown if he’d be able to play again...at all.
Today, he posted this:
This time last year I was down and out not only in basketball, but in life. With the help of a great support system i got my fight back. It’s bigger than a game pic.twitter.com/WGy6XwFKoZ— Isaiah Wilkins (@isaiahwilkins21) March 16, 2018
Seeing the difference between the two pictures is staggering. On the left, Wilkins in Virginia’s 2017 ACC tournament win over Pitt. The Hoos won 75-63, and Wilkins played 23 minutes, going 3-for-3 from the field and 2-for-2 from the line for eight points. Notre Dame defeated Virginia in the next game, with Wilkins playing just 14 minutes. He played five minutes in their next game - the first round of the NCAA tournament - and didn’t play in Virginia’s disappointing loss to Florida.
The picture on the right is from this season’s thrilling 61-60 win over Boston College, Virginia’s first ACC win en route to a 17-1 regular season record in conference, a 20-1 record overall against the ACC, and the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“I’m really grateful,” Wilkins said after Virginia’s ACC tournament win over Louisville last week. “Sometimes I look back at pictures and things like that and remember the time and I think I was taking it for granted a lot at that time and I definitely don’t do that now.”
He hasn’t only battled physically. Back in February, ESPN’s Andrea Adelson outlined Wilkins’s struggled with anxiety and depression. Wilkins relied heavily on the support of his teammates to battle day in and day out, and makes a concerted effort to give back in his community.
“Basketball serves as a safe haven for me,” Wilkins told Adelson. “Everything feels OK when I am on the court. I don’t think it’s a secret inside our family here that I struggle. Everybody does an amazing job reaching out to me and checking on me, and I really appreciate it.”
The fact that he’s even able to play now is enough. “I’m just happy to be healthy.” Wilkins said with his infectious smile during the ACC tournament.
Now, he’s on the cover of the latest edition of Sports Illustrated:
Luckily, Wilkins wasn’t aware of the long-standing jinx associated with being on the cover of the magazine, seeing as he neither reads magazines nor watched college basketball until late in high school.
“See, I ain’t ever heard of that.” Wilkins said of the SI cover curse. “I thought it was cool. Really cool. My mom went and bought all the copies. Y’all can’t get none, I’m sorry.”
If the Hoos hope to go far into March (and hopefully into April), Wilkins will be a huge piece of that.
“Everybody is bought in,” Wilkins said of his squad. “We believe in each other. It’s a family. I won’t let that change.”
Virginia tips off at an estimated 9:20pm (or after Kansas State-Creighton) on Friday night against UMBC to kick off their NCAA tournament play. The game will be televised on TNT.