Fans of Virginia basketball have waited a long time—two plus years at this point—but they’re starting to get a glimpse of what Jay Huff can bring to the No. 3 Cavaliers. Huff, a four-star power forward out of the Voyager Academy in Durham, came to Charlottesville with the class of 2016 that included Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De’Andre Hunter.
Like Hunter, Huff redshirted his first season in Charlottesville. Unlike Hunter, Huff wasn’t much of an impact once he hit the court. Last year, Huff averaged just 8.8 minutes, 3.4 points, and 1.9 rebounds per game. He saw limited playing time due to consistent struggles on the defensive end, something that isn’t unusual as big men learn the Pack Line and bulk up to deal with the more physical play in college.
This season, Huff is averaging 9.3 minutes, 5.4 points, and 2.4 rebounds per game while shooting 71% from the floor and 64% from three. In conference play, Huff has made 15-of-18 shots attempted and has hit double digit scoring twice (at Clemson, vs Wake Forest).
While the scoring is great, increased playing time for Huff has been a result of more consistent defensive play both on the court and in practice. Although studying film has been helpful to Huff, he describes himself as more of a learn-by-doing player. Being able to have more time under his belt has been instrumental in his defensive performance improving.
“I think the consistency has been better,” Huff said after the win over Wake Forest. “It hasn’t been perfect, but I think that’s helped, for sure. In some of the games it has been kind of off and on, some games it has been pretty solid for the most part. So I feel like that’s definitely been a factor.”
Naturally, Huff wants to play. The fans want him to play. Tony Bennett wants him to play. But he knew what he was getting into when he chose Virginia over teams like Duke and Wake Forest.
“I mean it is frustrating in a way [to have the defense holding him back], but I knew that coming in,” Huff said. “I knew that we play defense this way and that’s the system and that’s what I have to do to earn playing time, not vice versa. I wouldn’t expect that to change for me.”
The lack of playing time for Huff has been ammunition for the “Bennett’s too conservative” crowd, often citing his unwillingness to go to an offensive weapon when it gives up too much on the other end of the ball. This is a fair critique, though in Bennett’s defense (no pun intended), it’s hard to complain too much about rotations when Virginia went 20-1 in ACC games last season en route to another ACC regular season and tournament title. In the devastating loss to UMBC where the Hoos desperately needed any kind of spark, Huff was unavailable due to a shoulder injury sustained the day before the opening NCAA tournament game. Now that Huff’s development defensively has allowed him to see the court more, Bennett is adding more wrinkles offensively.
There’s no denying Huff’s impact on that side of the ball. His mere presence changes the way opponents have to guard the Hoos as Huff is a dynamic threat from all over. Huff’s ability to consistently hit the three (7-for-11 on the season, 4-for-5 in conference play), forces defenders to close out hard and sets up opportunities like this:
Want to play zone with Huff on the court? Ok, cool. Hope you like giving up alley-oops:
Huff gives his teammates a lot of credit for making things easy for him offensively. “It’s definitely coming along in terms of comfort. Sometimes I’ve been in with Kihei [Clark] and Ty [Jerome] and they’re great passers so that’s a huge part of it. They see me when I’m open and make great passes. I don’t know how Kyle [Guy] made that over-the-head pass today. That was awesome. Props to him for that.”
The assist from Guy was one of the highlights of the win over Wake Forest as the third year point guard drove the lane and drew several Wake defenders before somehow finding Huff at the top of the arc, dead center. Huff didn’t hesitate, despite acknowledging there’s a little extra pressure to convert the shot after such a beautiful pass.
“There have been a couple times in practice where he’s [Guy] thrown me a lob and I missed it, or the one in the Clemson game—the first one that I missed—and he’s been on me for that, so I felt I had to make that one today especially.”
While there are still breakdowns defensively, he’s proven his worth as a rim protector. Huff is second on the team with 15 blocks (behind Mamadi Diakite’s 17), despite playing 42% the number of minutes. He will freely admit he loves blocking shots, and he often does it without leaving his feet or overthinking it.
“I tend not to think about it too much...thinking about it now I’m like, ‘I don’t know,’” Huff said of whether he has to gauge when to jump with a shooter. “I should know the answer to that question, but over the years I’ve learned to block shots so I guess that’s part of it. I don’t think of it too much.”
Now that he’s seeing more time—and trending towards even more—Huff is just happy to get a new set of questions.
“It’s definitely nice not being asked about my weight as much,” Huff said with a laugh after his 14-point performance over Marshall on New Year’s Eve. “Some might see that as rude, but...I’m still trying to put on a little bit. Trying to at least maintain and try to eat a lot, that sort of thing. It is nice to have that be less of a thing.”
Huff and the Hoos are back in action on Saturday at 1pm as UVA takes on Notre Dame. The game will be televised by CBS.