Huff Making Most of Growing Opportunity

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Virginia’s Jay Huff gets a clean block on an inside shot by Wake Forest’s Olivier Sarr. (Photo by John Markon)

There it was in black and white on what Duke students refer to as the “cheat sheet” for all home games.

The sheets featured all “the dirt” on Virginia’s players, information that the Cameron Crazies could use to badger the opposition for the game. It’s a Cameron tradition.

Stuff like on Kyle Guy, “has lived 20 years on this Earth and has just never quite figured out his hair.”  There were jabs about Kihei Clark’s height (he’s 5-foot-9), and about Braxton Key being Ralph Sampson’s nephew … chants that “Ralph is better.”

While most of those may seem just lame to the majority of us, there was an interesting story about Virginia redshirt sophomore Jay Huff, the popular 7-foot-1 center whose game is starting to come alive.

The cheat sheet on Huff told a tale of his youth when Huff, who grew up in Durham, once caught his teeth in a basketball goal’s net while trying to dunk. Curious minds wanted to know … more of the story.

After the Cavaliers’ romp over Wake Forest last Tuesday night, we got the answers from Huff. Turned out the Crazies had part of the story correct, but not totally.

Huff said it was the summer before sixth grade and the rim was lower than normal, and that he was definitely not attempting to bite the net and hang on with his teeth.

“I was being stupid and the rim was low, so I don’t think that I had crazy bounce (leaping ability) back in the day,” Huff explained. “I tried to touch the net with my head, but I forgot to close my mouth.”

When he was on his way back down, his four front upper teeth got caught in the net. It wasn’t pretty as he headed to the dentist, who immediately gave him some grief as in “you flossed a little too hard.”

Huff may be the only guy you’ve known who flossed with a basketball net.

“It was bad,” Huff remembered, smiling a toothy smile now. “Lots of blood. My mom is not going to like reliving this story … sorry Mom.”

Fortunately Huff had a good dentist who prevented him from losing any teeth, wired up his gum, and required him to wear a brace kind of like a mouthguard for quite a while. So long, in fact, that he had to learn how to eat with just his bottom teeth and his tongue.

“I’m not going into detail on that,” Huff chuckled.

It was just one setback from long ago and far away for Huff, who grew up a Duke fan but quickly converted over once he became interested in Virginia.

“Yeah I was a Duke fan but don’t spread that around,” he said.

It was only natural for a kid living in Durham, N.C., a kid who had some basketball talent and ambition, to like the Blue Devils. Duke has been one of the nation’s top programs for the past 30-plus years. His dad, Mike, worked some at Duke.

“That’s who we cheered for at that point,” Jay Huff said.

All that changed when Tony Bennett and his staff came knocking at the Huff household. While Jay committed early to the Cavaliers, there was some interest from Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who invited Huff to the Blue Devils’ national championship banquet after the 2015 season.

At that point, Huff wasn’t going to change his mind. He had fallen in love with UVA, the staff, and all things Wahoo. He’s still in love with his school and Charlottesville.

While a lack of court time as a redshirt freshman tested him, he’s never wavered in his commitment to Bennett’s program.

“I did get impatient at times, I’ll admit that,” Huff said. “I always felt like that I would one day be able to [play like he is currently]. I remember praying about it before I came here.

“There were times when I was like, ‘Oh man, I could have played at a smaller school,’ but the thought of transferring never crossed my mind,” Huff continued. “I love Charlottesville and the people I’ve met, so it has been a lot of fun and have never second-guessed it.”

His patience and hard work has paid off. Averaging 8.8 minutes in the dozen games he appeared in last season, Huff had to wonder what this season would be like. He’s starting to get more time as he has made more contributions.

In fact, if you take Huff’s last four games (BC, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Duke), plus his first two minutes in the Wake game, add up his stats and the big seven-footer has scored 35 points in 36 minutes of court time over that span.

He really opened up some eyes during his seven minutes at Duke where he scored on a soaring slam dunk where he took off somewhere around the free throw line and fully outstretched, hammered the ball home, bewildering even the Crazies, who couldn’t find his dunking ability anywhere on their cheat sheets.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh crap, I’m not going to make it [to the rim] and I’m going to embarrass myself in front of all these people and it’s going to be really loud,’” Huff laughed about that dunk. “I was surprised I made it.”

What a great moment for a guy who attended that Duke national title banquet at Cameron a few years hence, especially with his family sitting behind UVA’s bench.

“It was fun getting to play there, even when I was sitting on the bench with my parents probably five or 10-feet behind me in that place,” Huff said.

Virginia fans were beginning to see the potential, although they have always believed in him. Easily one of the most popular non-starters in UVA history, Huff always receives loud ovations when he enters games at John Paul Jones Arena, and encouragement when he comes out of the game after making a solid contribution.

In fact, during that scoring flurry in the first half against Wake, Huff drew plenty of oohs and aahs for the two-minute blitz. He drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key, then scored on a drive to the hoop, was fouled and converted the and-one, then capped it all off with an alley oop slam dunk on a pass from Ty Jerome. Eight points in 68 seconds to be exact.

He finished with 12 points, two rebounds and two blocked shots in 13 minutes. Who knows how many shots he altered with his stretched frame and long arms.

“He is continuing to improve,” Bennett said afterward. “He shows some great flashes offensively. He’s such a threat. He can stretch you from the three but he can put it on the floor.”

When Huff is in the lineup, Bennett said the Cavaliers do a couple of things different offensively (spreading out defenses), which is another change-of-pace look.

“Jay is doing a good job and he’s been practicing hard,” the coach said. “I challenged him [Tuesday] to go after the ball with two hands because I thought he left some rebounds out there. But he’s progressing in the right direction and playing hard, and that was good to see some of the things he did.”

There isn’t an abundance of 7-footers that are threats from the 3-point line, but Huff is different. When he was younger and had no thoughts about growing to that height, his dad, who was also his coach, made him practice “positionless” basketball, so he picked up all the skills of a guard or forward.

Thusly, don’t leave him open at the top of the key, and don’t you dare give him a free lane to the basket because with his giant strides, all he needs is a little daylight for a dribble or two in order to build enough momentum to launch himself toward the rim.

It wasn’t his offense that kept him on the bench. It was defense and to some degree his physique. He’s now 232 pounds and has put on a lot of weight since showing up as a tall and rather skinny player.

We can’t help but remember the late Jim Valvano describing one of his own players with a similar build that Jimmy V used to refer to as the “human tongue depressor.”

“Hey, if he turns sideways he becomes invisible,” Valvano would crack.

OK, enough with the jokes. Huff roomed with Kyle Guy that first year and both were trying to put on weight and would often eat six times a day. Visiting their room might have been revolting to a health nutritionist as they were scarfing down pizzas, burgers, fries, milkshakes, at an alarming rate.

Guy joked that it worked for Huff, but not for him. Huff is still eating, a little healthier, but added that he still sneaks in some not-so-healthy stuff, too.

The biggest reason that denied him court time though, was defense. He wasn’t getting the ball screens, something he’s worked really hard on mastering, and he still isn’t quite there yet.

Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite work with Huff every day in practice and they’ve seen improvement on that side of the floor.

“First is the fact that he can hedge pretty well,” Diakite said in reference to the defensive screens. “That’s also because of his height.

“The second thing would be the one-on-one defense,” Diakite added. “If he’s able to play against a center or match up against a forward or wing, that would be big for us. He wants to get it right. That’s why we understand that he gets frustrated at times. It’s a long process but he’s going to get there.”

Huff said he is becoming more consistent and that has helped him become more of an option for the coaching staff. It must be difficult realizing that he’s so offensively skilled but that his defensive woes have cost him time.

“It is frustrating in a way but I knew that coming in,” Huff said. “I knew that we played defense this way. That’s the system and that’s what I have to do to earn playing time.”

He does have one thing on his side. He’s 7-foot-1. As the late Al McGuire once said, “you can’t coach being 7-feet.”

There have been times this season, including the Wake game, where he has blocked a shot without even having to jump.

“I tend not to think about [not jumping to block] it too much,” he said. “Thinking about it now, I don’t know why [he doesn’t sometimes jump]. But I like blocking shots.”

The fact that he has developed so well this season is more than encouraging because he missed about five months due to shoulder surgery. He tore the labrum in his right shoulder in the very last practice before the UMBC game last March and took a long time to get back to form.

“I think God put me through it for a reason,” Huff said.

Whatever that reason might have been, it seems to be working out for the best. Huff seems to be improving right before our very eyes.

With his popularity, he’s getting tons of nicknames by the Wahoo faithful. Everything from Huffington Post (because he’s a post player) to Huff the Magic Dragon are on the growing list.

Maybe that’s something else the Crazies can research for their next cheat sheet on the big man.


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