Justin Anderson’s return to form key for 2-seed Virginia’s title chances

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Justin Anderson is happy that he won’t have to answer questions about the most famous pinky in college basketball any longer.

Ever since the 6-foot-6 star guard broke it against Louisville on Feb. 7, questions have centered around one common theme: How does the finger feel? Rightly so, as with Anderson in the starting lineup No. 2-seed Virginia owns a bawdy 22-1 record.

While he didn’t start Friday afternoon against No. 15-seed Belmont in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Charlotte, Anderson played 26 minutes, scoring 15 points  (4 of 6 shooting) and grabbing five rebounds. On Sunday, the Cavaliers (30-3) will take on 7-seed Michigan State, which earlier in the day beat Georgia, with a healthier Anderson in its arsenal.

"(I’ve been asked about my finger) at least 700 or 800 times," said Anderson, a junior. "Imagine that. ‘How’s your finger? How’s your finger? How’s your finger? Do you feel this way?’ I’m fine. … You kind of feel like that people aren’t going to stop asking until you show them in a game that you’re fine. I guess I’ve been showing practice that I’m fine, but it doesn’t matter when no one sees it. It feels good to show it in a game and so that you don’t have to ask anymore."

Most equate Virginia’s chances of going deep into the tournament with the health of Anderson. After the way the junior played in his initial return last week in the ACC tourney, there was room for doubt. Anderson played two games during the tournament, tallied 26 minutes, zero points and went 0 for 6 from the field.

He said there was never a doubt in his mind, not even for a fleeting instance after undergoing an emergency appendectomy a few weeks ago, that he wouldn’t return to being the guy that averaged 12.3 points per game while making 46.9 percent of his 3-point attempts.

"I knew what was going to happen next and that I was going to be in recovery and get back to playing," he said. "I had a positive mindset about it the whole time. One thing I always kept telling myself is to control the controllables. I can’t control my pinky getting broke and I can’t control my appendix. All I can do is control the recovery process, stay positive and let everything take its course."

Even though he doesn’t lead the team in scoring, Anderson is regarded by many NBA scouts as a potential first-round draft pick because of his versatility and athleticism. Just his mere presence on the court changes things offensively for the Cavaliers.

"Our dynamic changes," point guard London Perrantes said. "Our game plan doesn’t change, but everybody focuses on him. He draws a lot of attention."

After Anderson hit his first 3-point attempt of the game early in the first half, the Belmont players immediately became aware of where he was at all times. It was his first points in over a month. As a result, it opened things up offensively for the Cavaliers and Malcolm Brogdon took advantage of it, making 4 of 9 3-point attempts.

"(Making that first three) felt good, but I didn’t have much time to think about it because you had to get back (on defense)," Anderson said.

Fittingly, it was Anderson that dribbled out the final 15-plus seconds of the game clock to close out the game and advance Virginia.

"He’s been working hard," Perrantes said. "It’s going to do nothing but help us in the long run. Having him back is huge."