It’s Virginia basketball media day. Justin McKoy sits alone at the far end of the court in John Paul Jones Arena, an ear-to-ear smile printed across his face. He’s chatting with a few of his teammates sitting nearby.
Cameras and microphones crowd the faces of players like Kihei Clark, Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key. Reporters pepper the trio with an array of questions, hoping to gather a quote or two for their stories. Others, like McKoy, sit quietly in their seats, waiting for an opportunity to discuss the game they love.
When McKoy gets an occasional question, he answers politely. McKoy’s smile then defies the laws of nature and grows past that of an ear-to-ear smile and into something much larger when he’s asked about one thing: practice.
Unlike Allen Iverson, the Virginia freshman loves to practice. He loses track of time when he’s battling against Diakite, Key and Sam Hauser. McKoy adores practice.
“It’s basketball,” McKoy said. “It’s what I love to do. I truly love it. I don’t love just like only game moments and the crowd. I love every part of basketball, and I want to do it forever. I know it’s not realistic, but I’m gonna enjoy it while I can.”
That means enjoying every part of the game, from the stellar performances to the grueling practices to the nights on the bench when his number never gets called.
McKoy’s mindset has served him well this season, because he hasn’t seen the court much during his first year in Charlottesville.
After playing 17 minutes and performing exceptionally well against North Carolina, McKoy has played just 21 minutes in the 12 games since, and he’s failed to appear in seven of those games.
With the Cavaliers loaded in the frontcourt, finding minutes this season can be tough. McKoy mentioned conversations with the coaches about his playing time, and the mutual understanding that it’s tough to take time away from experienced players like Diakite and Key.
“I shouldn’t get discouraged by that because there [have] been many games where they’ve been in foul trouble, and I’ve had to step in,” McKoy said. “If I go in the game thinking like, ‘Oh, I’m not gonna play,’ then he puts me in, I’m not ready, and I hurt the team. Always gotta stay ready because you never know what’s gonna happen.”
Staying engaged and prepared to play when you only see the court sporadically is easier said than done. For McKoy, the focus falls on improving daily, whether that’s in practice, the weight room or a game.
“It’s the key to getting better, not only staying ready but it’s the key to getting better,” McKoy explained. “You just attack every practice like you’re fighting for a starting spot, like you want to be the best in college basketball.”
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett says for younger players like McKoy and Francisco Caffaro, the goal is to earn playing time through great practices and good spot minutes. The Cavaliers tend to develop talent over four- and five-year periods, so the limited minutes in McKoy’s first year are part of the plan.
“It’s hard, but it’s kind of a natural progression,” Bennett said.
McKoy isn’t the first Virginia player to follow a path of slowly earning increased playing time, and he won’t be the last. As his freshman season progresses, McKoy makes an impression during his favorite event.
“Justin works so hard in practice,” Bennett said. “His time will come as long as he doesn’t get too discouraged. Same with all the guys.”
Even though McKoy would love more playing time, he came to Virginia in large part because of Bennett and his faith. McKoy, who values his own faith, trusts in his coach as a person. He feels confident in Bennett’s plan for the program.
“That was one of the biggest things that attracted me here,” McKoy said. “It wasn’t winning the national championship. That was very impressive, but it was how he develops guys and then his faith.”
McKoy says he saw Bennett kneel and say a prayer after winning a game last season, and the moment stood out to him during the recruiting process.
“It gave me chills when I watched it,” McKoy said. “It was like, ‘That’s a guy I wanna be around.’”
For some freshmen, limited playing time could lead to frustration or even a desire to join another program. McKoy doesn’t fall in that camp. He knew what he was signing up for when he joined Virginia and Bennett.
He’s in it for the long haul.