CHARLOTTESVILLE — Malcolm Brogdon is on time and first. These are among the sunrise-consistent traits Virginia’s redshirt senior point guard possesses. When he assembled teammates for extra offseason workouts, it was not a surprise. That Brogdon took months to mull whether he would pursue a professional basketball career or return to school was also predictable. He decided to return, stern-faced and ambitious.
The last person on the court is Anthony Gill. Not because he’s not ready to work — this is simply media day for the sixth-ranked Cavaliers — but because it’s more fitting for him. His hair is curly and moderately controlled. If Brogdon is the straight man among the elders on this team, Gill is the funny man. He said his hair, held back by a thin headband, is undoubtedly the team’s best. He’s intent on winning, but otherwise loose. From afar, the jovial state appears to separate him from Brogdon.
There is, however, a moderate hoax occurring. That’s what Brogdon’s teammates contend. The blank face seen during games, the guy who returned to Virginia to pick up a free Master’s degree and play more basketball, you know, Mr. Serious over there, well, Brogdon is not quite that rigid.
“I feel like he has people fooled,” London Perrantes said.
“He’s definitely got everybody fooled,” said Gill, also a fifth-year senior.
When’s the last time you saw him laugh?
“He’s always laughing,” Perrantes said. “He finds something funny out of everything. Literally everything.”
Malcolm, last thing that made you laugh?
“Probably Anthony walking out here late.”
A smirk follows, and there it is. A small shell crack from Brogdon. He continues to look straight ahead from his seat, but there is joy on his face after taking a public poke at his pal.
Amusement like this is part of the reason he returned. The sell from Virginia coach Tony Bennett to Brogdon was easy. Bennett told him, if he came back to Virginia, he could “have it all.” Finish his Master’s in public policy. Use the extra work from the summer to again be all-ACC first team and possibly move up from multiple compilations that listed him as a second-team All-American. And, most important, push Virginia further in the NCAA tournament.
“If I had left last year, I wouldn’t have felt like I’ve gotten everything I wanted to out of UVa and my experience, basketball and off the court,” Brogdon said. “I feel like I had more to do in terms of my education. I wanted to get my Master’s degree. That’s a great opportunity, especially if you can get it paid for.
“But, as far as on the court, I didn’t think that while I’ve been here we’ve accomplished what I had hoped to accomplish and that’s winning a national championship. So, I wanted to come back and be a part of something special again.”
In the fall, Brogdon assembled teammates for extra workouts. Sophomore Marial Shayok called the session “intense” and “competitive.” Brogdon explained skill-specific work was coupled with bonding.
“First, it’s about camaraderie,” Brogdon said. “You want guys to know that you as a leader on the team are bought into them being successful as much as you’re going to be successful. Guys like Marial, London, I want them to know that I’m bought into them. I want us all to do well.”
Brogdon’s personal summer work centered on shooting 3-pointers with more accuracy. He was the Georgia state player of the year coming out of high school. In his senior season, he made 46.8 percent of his 3-point attempts. The extra foot to the college 3-point line has proved a complication, however. Brogdon is shooting 34.9 percent from behind the 3-point line in his three seasons. Last year, he shot just 34.4 percent, a step down from the 37 percent of his prior season.
He also tried to pluck point guard tips from Perrantes, who is more of a freelancer and attacker. Finally, Brogdon watched himself on film in order to become smarter.
“I learned from my mistakes and things I could have done better from past years,” Brogdon said.
In consecutive seasons, Michigan State has knocked Virginia out of the NCAA tournament. Each time, Virginia was the higher seed. Brogdon scored 17 points in the 2014 loss, but was an erratic 4-for-14 from the field. The Cavaliers lost by two points. Last season, he scored nine points against the Spartans, shooting just 3-for-12. Virginia lost by six. There is bitterness.
“We have to keep that in the back of our mind when we get to that point again,” Brogdon said. “It’s not just the regular season we’re focused on. It’s the big picture. It’s the run we make in the tournament that really matters.”
Virginia has front-loaded its non-conference schedule in hopes of a boost. The past two seasons, the Cavaliers rolled through the regular season, earning a No. 1 and No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, respectively. They added pitfalls to this season’s non-conference schedule. Early road games, multiple ranked opponents, a kind of tournament prep in the fall.
For Brogdon to collect all the possible benefits of returning, the Cavaliers will have to change their tournament result. He’s back to win a title, not advance one or two games. The extended education is the only thing he has personal control over. Where the Cavaliers finish will be driven in large part by him, as he leads, deciphers the floor and, he hopes, shoots better. But, he’ll need his teammates to achieve what he really wants: Having the last laugh in March.