CHARLOTTESVILLE — In his five years with Virginia basketball, Jay Huff has seen just about everything a college basketball player could see.
He was on the UVA team that was stunned by UMBC in 2018, the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16. He cut down the nets the next year in Minneapolis, a member of the Cavaliers’ first national championship team.
And he packed his bags and headed home from Greensboro, N.C., last March, when the season was abruptly called off because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Huff has seen it all during his time at Virginia. Monday night, he’s looking forward to seeing his loved ones in the stands at John Paul Jones Arena one final time.
“I want my wife there,” Huff said. “I want my family there.”
No. 15 UVA (15-6, 11-4 ACC) played its last game — a loss to North Carolina State — with no fans in the stands due to the university’s heightened COVID-19 restrictions put in place after a surge of cases on campus.
Sunday, a school spokesman confirmed UVA was returning to its previous protocols, which have allowed friends and family of players and staff to attend home games.
That’s an important development for Huff and the programs other seniors — Sam Hauser, Tomas Woldetensae and walk-on Austin Katstra — who are likely playing their final games at JPJ on Monday against Miami (7-15, 3-14).
After Wednesday’s home loss to N.C. State, the Cavaliers’ third in a row, Huff acknowledged that the fatigue attacking the team isn’t solely the normal exhaustion of a college basketball season.
The mental and emotional toll of playing a college basketball season through the pandemic may finally have caught Virginia.
“I mean, we’re all tired,” Huff said after the 68-61 loss to the Wolfpack. “Obviously, it’s all frustrating, especially with the rising numbers in the UVA community. We can’t have fans here. But obviously that’s not an excuse, because we play in empty arenas all the time and we play in practice all the time when it’s empty. No excuse by any means. Yeah, guys are tired, but so is everybody else.”
Virginia won its first seven ACC games this season, came out on top of 11 of 12 of its first league contests and was a fixture atop the conference standings. It reached as high as No. 7 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll just two weeks ago.
Then came the fade. The second-place Cavaliers have lost their last three games, a blowout at Florida State, a 1-point heartbreaker at Duke and Wednesday’s home loss to N.C. State.
Consistency has been difficult to achieve for teams across the college basketball landscape this season. By coach Tony Bennett’s admission, this year’s installment of UVA basketball hasn’t been good enough to win games when its execution isn’t top-notch.
“It’s a hard way to go to kind of be that sharp mentally and that good physically, to beat teams that are playing well,” Bennett said. “But that’s just this team, this year. When it’s a little off or it’s not right, you can lose if you’re not there.”
So, has all the added stress of COVID-19 protocols, isolating from friends and family, taking remote courses and playing in front of mostly empty arenas finally caught up with the Cavaliers?
“That’s a fair question,” Bennett said. “If it was just us, I’d say sure. It’s everyone. Yeah, our guys, everybody’s been here since July. That’s real. But everyone’s in the same boat. It is what it is as they say. Everybody’s going through that same thing.”
The question now is, can Bennett and his players bring that boat smoothly to shore. After the Miami game, UVA ends the regular season Saturday at Louisville.
If it wins one of those two, it will finish no lower than fourth going into the upcoming ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C. The top four finishers in the regular season receive double-byes into the quarterfinals.
For their part, Bennett’s players have taken on their coach’s approach to the issue of mental exhaustion. It’s real. It’s unavoidable. And it must be dealt with if Virginia is going to find success in the postseason.
“I think that’s just the nature of it for every team right now,” Hauser said. “I think that’s just something we have to go through. You have to not let that affect you as much as you can and I think our team has done a good job of it thus far. We just have to continue with it. There’s about one month left in the season and every game down the stretch here is really crucial for us.”