- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 7, 2011

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Jontel Evans’ performance in the first half Tuesday was forgettable. His second half was a hint Virginia could be dangerous all season if the junior guard can produce a multidimensional performance.

Evans wasn’t the only reason the Cavaliers routed George Mason 68-48 to roll into their exam break at 8-1. Far from it. Yet his growth — especially at the offensive end — could be a significant factor as Virginia ventures deeper into its schedule.

There is credit to be doled out for what the point guard has done, notably develop a pull-up jumper in the offseason. But there was just as much praise for what he didn’t do against the Patriots: allow a half of bad decisions to linger an entire night.

“That’s a sign of maturity for Jontel, to shrug off maybe a bad stretch where it got a little shaky and he responded,” coach Tony Bennett said. “I thought that was big for us.”

Evans’ well-earned reputation from his first two years was one of a defensive nuisance and a generally steady table-setter, though not a dynamo on offense. The 5-foot-11 guard never scored more than 11 points in a game before this season, and he’s made 10 3-pointers in 1,599 career minutes.

“I came in this year wanting to be that lead guard,” Evans said. “Coach Bennett says it always starts with me on both ends. I have to get guys the ball, and I have to start our defense. If guys see me rattled, then they’re going to be rattled. I always try to keep my composure.”

His defense remains his strongest asset, yet Tuesday demonstrated an expanded offensive repertoire. While Evans’ game probably will never depend on an outside shot, his quickness is a vital skill for drawing in defenders and creating opportunities for the rest of the Cavaliers’ veteran starting lineup.

That’s especially valuable at the end of the shot clock. Evans twice hit floaters in the lane against Mason, pulling up after finally drawing the attention of a defender. But if it came sooner, he had plenty of options.

“Once he drives into the paint, everything opens up,” forward Mike Scott said. “We got Joe [Harris] and Sam [Zeglinski] on the wings, me and Assane [Sene] down low. We’re just feeding off him.”

In his turnover-free second half, at least, Evans was a stabilizer even after Mason cut its deficit to 10 points. With the methodical style Bennett espouses — especially by forcing opponents to take as much time as possible to find a good shot — mistake-free play from the Cavaliers’ primary ball-handler is a priority.

Of course, if he’s happened to expand his offense — such as the pull-up jumpers — so much the better.

“It’s pretty big,” Evans said. “My first two years, I probably wouldn’t have shot it. This year, it’s really helped me. When I get into the paint, instead of going all the way I can stop, two feet or one depending on where the defender is, and just float it. I feel like I’m consistent with it.”

Bennett will take similar 11-point nights from Evans, but more than anything the Cavaliers need him to effectively distribute if they are to earn their first NCAA tournament berth since 2007. Scott remains Virginia’s headliner, and Harris and Zeglinski will combine to handle much of the Cavaliers’ scoring work on the perimeter.

But if Evans’ choices are sound, Virginia figures to be a feisty foe going forward.

“I just want him to make those good decisions, and that’s why I was proud of him after the first half,” Bennett said. “I thought in the first half, he maybe held it one dribble and was trying to throw it back across his body or the lane, which was tough. He’s so quick. When he can get to the paint, usually they collapse and if he can kick it out and we’ve got guys ready, that’s a great situation.”