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Castleberry: Finding themselves in Hooville

East Carolina Virginia Basketball

East Carolina guard B.J. Tyson, center, is pressured by Virginia forward Isaiah Wilkins (21) and Virginia guard London Perrantes, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Charlottesville, Va., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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By Tony Castleberry
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, December 8, 2016

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — It’s ironic that Hooville is a nickname for the home of University of Virginia basketball because there is little question about who the Cavaliers are.

The colloquialism is derived from another nickname, Wahoos, that UVa. sports fans sometimes use, and they have witnessed the Cavaliers or Cavs or Wahoos or ‘Hoos rack up victory after victory at John Paul Jones Arena in recent seasons, including Virginia’s 76-53 defeat of East Carolina on Tuesday.

While coach Tony Bennett’s 14th-ranked team utilized the suffocating defense it is known for to keep ECU’s offense from getting comfortable after an early Pirate 3-point shooting spree, and even that comfort level could be debated, East Carolina may have discovered another piece of its identity as it had to fight harder to get points than it has at any other time during a 7-3 start to the season.

In his seventh year in charge at ECU, coach Jeff Lebo has gone big, and the tallest addition to the Pirates’ roster, 7-foot-1 graduate transfer center Andre Washington, had been leading the charge among the giants. The former Wake Forest player was averaging 9.8 points per game and led the team with rebounding and blocked shot averages of 8.4 and 2.7, respectively, prior to Tuesday’s tip-off.

Washington won the opening jump ball for the ninth time in 10 games, and blocked a shot at the 18:06 mark, but Virginia already had its hooks in the Pirate post player, holding Washington scoreless in 17 minutes of action. The Rocky Mount, Va., native committed a season-high five turnovers and after Michel Nzege took his place on the floor with 17:50 remaining in the second half, Washington did not get back in the game.

It was by far his least effective performance in an ECU uniform, but it shouldn’t be cause for concern. In a strange way, it served as validation of how much the Pirates depend on Washington offensively and defensively, and they can take solace in the fact that another defense as tough as Virginia’s probably isn’t on their schedule this season.

The Cavaliers send two defenders at opposing big men as soon as they get the ball, forcing split-second decisions to be made by players who often take their time to survey how they are being defended before passing, shooting or dribbling. Virginia’s aggressive double-teams happen all over the floor at any given time — Pirate guard B.J. Tyson likened it to playing against eight Cavs instead of five, and it didn’t seem like he was making a reference to the officiating — but the traps near the lane were the ones that seemed to cause Washington and his teammates the most trouble on Tuesday.

Other teams will use traps against East Carolina. Few, if any, will do it as well as UVa. did.

As demoralizing as a 23-point loss can be, the Virginia game presents the Pirates with an opportunity to learn and possibly grow into the full-fledged big team Lebo probably had in mind when he signed Washington, 6-10 junior college transfer Jabari Craig and 6-10 redshirt freshman Deng Riak. Barring an unexpected setback, Washington will play a pivotal role, and he can erase any doubts about his game and his toughness by returning to pre-UVa. form when ECU ends its break for final exams in Greenville next Thursday against College of Charleston.

Either way, who the Pirates are should be known soon enough. 

Contact Tony Castleberry at tcastleberry@reflector.com, 252-329-9591 and follow @tcastleberrygdr on Twitter.

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