By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — If it’s Oct. 12, it must be time for college basketball, right?
Not quite, though the season seems to start a little earlier each year. Practice begins in four days for the men’s and women’s teams at UVa, and head coaches Tony Bennett and Debbie Ryan stopped by John Paul Jones Arena on Monday afternoon to field questions from media representatives.
Bennett is heading into his first season at Virginia. Ryan has been around town a tad longer. This will be her 33rd season at UVa, and she’s on the brink of another milestone in a Hall of Fame career.
Ryan needs one victory to become the seventh active Division I women’s coach with 700 wins. Her team opens Nov. 13 at Maryland-Baltimore County.
“I don’t look at it as my 700 wins,” Ryan said. “I look at is as the University’s 700 wins, because it belongs to the University of Virginia … Regardless of who it is, everybody here has a stake in what happens, and to me it belongs to everyone, not just me.”
Ryan, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2000, added: “Actually, probably my biggest emotional part of it will be that I got to live this long to see it.”
The UVa women are coming off a season in which they advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round and finished 24-10. The three best players on that team were Monica Wright, Lyndra Littles and Aisha Mohammed, and Littles and Mohammed are gone.
“The good news is, we have Monica Wright, and a lot of people don’t,” Ryan said.
Wright, a 5-11 guard, is the Wahoos’ only senior. She’s also a preseason All-American who averaged 20.5 points and 5.6 rebounds in 2008-09.
“She’s a nightmare to guard,” said teammate Jayna Hartig, a 6-1 redshirt junior.
Bennett took over a team that went 10-18 in 2008-09, but he has a special player, too, in 6-6 sophomore Sylven Landesberg. As a freshman, Landesberg averaged 16.6 points and 6.0 rebounds and was named ACC rookie of the year.
“My challenge to Sylven will be this, and I’ll say this publicly. I’ve said it to him: Every good player I’ve been around, the real good ones, they just find a way to make their teammates better,” Bennett said. “They bring up and elevate the play of their team.”
In preseason workouts, Landesberg said, Bennett has frequently pulled him aside to talk about setting his teammates up for baskets, “so everybody else around me gets better. I’m trying to help them feel more confident about themselves and their games.”
It’s possible, Landesberg acknowledged, that he’ll be a better player than in 2008-09 while scoring less.
“Definitely,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that I didn’t do last year that I could have done, and I’m going to try to do them this year … As long as our team is winning and I’m doing a lot of things to help, it’s all good.”
In separate sessions, players from both teams also met with reporters Monday afternoon. Some highlights from the JPJ:
CHANGING OF THE GUARD: Ryan called this is “year of unknown.” The Cavaliers’ roster includes five freshmen and four sophomores.
“That’s a lot of players, first-years and second-years,” Ryan said.
The newcomers are 5-6 China Crosby, 6-3, Simone Egwu, 6-4 Erinn Thompson, 5-11 Lexie Gerson and 6-1 Telia McCall.
“It’s one thing to be young and mediocre,” Ryan said, but that’s not the case with this group. “I think the talent level’s pretty high.”
UVa’s sophomores are twins Whitney and Britny Edwards, who stand 5-11 and 6-1, respectively, 5-7 Ariana Moorer and 6-2 Chelsea Shine.
Shine, who averaged 5.5 points and 3.3 rebounds last season, is “probably the most improved player on our team right now,” Ryan said.
ON THE MEND: Paulisha Kellum, a 5-8 guard, is back after missing the 2008-09 season with the third torn anterior cruciate ligament of her basketball career.
In the summer before her sophomore year of high school, she tore her left ACL. A year later, she tore her the right one. She injured her right knee again last year, but she’s recovered well from reconstructive surgery and is again scrimmaging with the team.
Kellum, who’s listed as a redshirt junior, averaged 9.0 points and 3.2 rebounds for the Cavaliers in 2007-08, and “adds a great deal,” Ryan said.
Rehabbing for the third time wasn’t easy, Kellum said, but “I just wanted to do it for my teammates and myself. I wasn’t ready to give up on myself.”
VERSION 2.0: Her sophomore class, Ryan said, has “taken a huge leap forward,” led by Moorer.
“Ari has, in my opinion, just turned the page in terms of, her freshman year’s over, and she’s stepping into her second year as a much more mature player who has really improved a lot of areas of her game,” Ryan said.
“Her body has changed dramatically. She has slimmed down. She’s a lot stronger, and she’s doing an extremely good job for us right now.
“Ari will probably play both the point and the 2 for us, because Ari can really score, as we found out last year, especially in the NCAA tournament. Ari was putting up 3s left and right, and she can really stretch the defense.”
Moorer averaged 7.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists as a freshman.
FACE OF THE PROGRAM: Like Sean Singletary before him, Landesberg has become the player most identified with the men’s team. Landesberg is featured in TV and print ads for the coming season, despite playing on a team stocked with juniors and seniors.
“I’m definitely comfortable with it,” Landesberg said. “I guess I just fell into this role, and I’m just accepting it with open arms.”
Singletary, who’s heading into his second NBA season, was in Charlottesville for much of the summer, and he “was always joking around with me,” Landesberg said.
“He was like, ‘You’re trying to be the next me,’ and I was like, ‘Come on. I’m the only Sylven. I’m not trying to be Sean or anybody else.’ But it’s fun. It’s good and bad. You’ve got to watch what you do at all times.”
WAIT AND SEE: Bennett has worked with his players in small groups and, more recently, as a team for most of the semester.
“Without a doubt, it’s a hard-working group,” he said. “The effort is there. Just the way they talk, the way they train, how they condition. So, yes, I’ve been pleased with that. But I think every team in America is working hard right now.
“We haven’t had to go through any adversity, and that’s going to be a significant test. How will we be when we go through some hard times. Will the character stay strong? Will the work ethic be there? Will the commitment to team over self win out?
“Those are the things that certainly don’t happen overnight. They’re part of building programs that are huge.”
KNOCK ON WOOD: Bennett’s team is healthy as it heads toward its first official practice. “So far, so good,” he said.
The thumb injury that bothered 7-0 center Assane Sene for most of last season has healed, and senior guard Calvin Baker is moving well after offseason operations on his foot and his knee.
BUYING IN: Two recruits signed letters of intent with UVa last November: 6-8 Tristan Spurlock and 5-11 Jontel Evans. Dave Leitao was the Cavaliers’ coach then, but he stepped down after the season.
After Bennett was hired, he visited Spurlock and then Evans. Had either requested a release from his letter of intent, Bennett would have granted it, but both decided to enroll at UVa.
“I think it’s great,” Bennett said. “I told them, as I begin my tenure, I really want to have guys that are excited about trying to turn this and to be a part of it. And it usually doesn’t work in the long room if guys don’t want to be a part of building a program. And so, as we’re starting this process, I’m really looking for those guys in who we recruit and who is already in the program.
“We’re going to push guys hard. We’ll treat them well and respect them, but we’re going to push them, and they have to be about the big picture of trying to make Virginia basketball a quality program, and that’s what I’m looking for, and guys who will represent it with character.”
Evans said he was skeptical about Bennett when the hire was announced. But it took only one visit to Evans’ home in Hampton for Bennett to win the family over.
“It was just his whole demeanor,” Evans said. “He had a big smile on his face. He came to my house like he’d known me for years.”
FRESH START: As a redshirt freshman last season, Sammy Zeglinski started 15 games at point guard and averaged 7.8 points. He lost confidence as the season went on, however, and didn’t always respond well to Leitao’s in-your-face style of coaching.
Zeglinski admits he’s excited about having a former NBA point guard as his head coach.
“I really feel like I know what he’s trying to do with the team,” Zeglinski said, “and I respect him being a point guard, and I really feel like we’re on the same page a lot of the time.”