CHARLOTTE, N.C. —The answers got shorter with each new wave of reporters who reached his locker Thursday afternoon.
“I’m good,” Virginia guard Justin Anderson said. “I’m ready to rock and roll.”
“Any pain in the hand?”
“How do you feel, Justin?”
“I feel great.”
“Shot feel OK?”
“My shot feels good.”
After about five or six versions of this same exchange, a new TV reporter approached.
“I’m sorry, I missed the first round of questions …”
“Everything is great,” Anderson said, interrupting with a grin. “You didn’t miss anything. Trust me. My finger is good. I can still shoot a little bit. I’m all good.”
Leave the kid alone, you might be thinking. It’s not like Anderson’s left pinkie finger — which he fractured on Feb. 7, returned from last week and will still have wrapped Friday when UVa faces Belmont in the second round of the NCAA Tournament — is a matter of national security.
Or maybe it is. After all, President Barack Obama did allude to it this week while picking his bracket on ESPN.
The president had UVa advancing to the Elite Eight but mentioned being “worried about Anderson and how he’s feeling.”
Join the club, sir.
“I’m very appreciative of that,” Anderson said of the Oval Office concern. “I think that’s a little bit of somebody giving him a little prep of what to say, listening to ESPN about what Virginia
needs to win. He doesn’t know me. I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Yeah, the president said my name’ and boost my own head.
“No, it was sweet. It was cool. I appreciate it so much. And if it does get back to him, thank you, Mr. President. But he didn’t have us in the Final Four, so I guess I have a little beef with him there.”
Right there. That last part? That’s what Justin Anderson is about: winning this tournament as a team. And that’s why the most loquacious UVa player sounds so uncomfortable talking about his hand.
It’s not that he harbors trepidation about his hand. Over and over Thursday, he made it perfectly clear that he doesn’t. His problem is what this hand issue has done to the UVa narrative as a whole.
It’s caused the nation to divide the players into individual entities and examine who provides what. Malcolm Brogdon’s the leader, London Perrantes the distributor, Anthony Gill the toughness in the post, Mike Tobey the possible spark off the bench. And Anderson? Well, as the president suggests, Anderson is the X-factor.
Anderson doesn’t do labels like that. He views himself as a part of something greater, this amoebic force known as UVa basketball.
“I think that happened because the country’s seeing a lot of the Kentuckys and Wisconsins, where the individuals are kind of getting that spotlight,” Anderson said. “We totally respect what those programs do, but when you try to compare it to everybody else in the country, you’re not going to always get the same results.
“You’re not going to be able to break down each player individually at UVa and say, OK, can we win this game or can we not because of the individual matchups. You can do that with Kentucky.
“We have to make sure that it’s a team effort that people have to go against. Why go away from what we know best or what we know works? Why go away from working as a team and making the extra pass and relying on the strengths when it’s gotten us success in the past? We want to make sure that we understand who we are and we go out there together.”
In two games in the ACC tournament, Anderson played 26 minutes. He went 0 for 6 from the floor, missed his only free throw attempt, grabbed two defensive rebounds and had one block. So the concern is legitimate.
But Anderson stresses that everything he’s done in practice — the dunks, the drives, the crisp passes — have convinced him that he’s back.
“Now the next step is to bring it to the game,” he said. “And I’m not worried about it at all. I hope that the expectation is not for me to come out tomorrow and have 17 points. If it happens, it happens, and I’m proud of it, but ultimately what this team worries more about is winning basketball games. And I hope everybody in the country realizes that.”
About a half-hour later, as UVa conducted its shootaround, Anderson stood in the left corner and put up 16 3-pointers in rapid succession.
He swished 14.
He’s good, gang. He’s ready to rock and roll.