By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa’s best basketball player was in uniform but did not play Sunday night. Sylven Landesberg sat on the bench, his right thigh aching, and watched helplessly as the inevitable unfolded in front of him at John Paul Jones Arena.
Virginia is not a great offensive team with Landesberg, one of the ACC’s best scorers. Without him? Against fifth-ranked Duke?
“I knew it was going to be challenging,” first-year coach Tony Bennett said, and it was that and more for a team that’s sinking in the ACC standings.
On the Cavaliers’ first possession, one of their most accurate shooters, junior guard Jeff Jones, got an open look from the right corner. His 3-point attempt bounced off the rim, the first of 35 misses for Virginia in a 67-49 loss.
The defeat was the seventh straight for the Wahoos (5-9, 14-13), whose fans are understandably discouraged. Many years ago, the coach who sat on the other bench Sunday night endured major rebuilding in Durham, N.C., and he believes better days are coming for UVa’s program.
Bennett has “won a lot more than I did early on,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “Tony is classy, smart, and he is perfect for Virginia. He is just a really good coach and a good man. He wants to build a program. So whatever decisions he is making — I am not following them on a day-to-day basis — just knowing him, I know that the decisions he is making are not just short-term, they are long-term. They are principled decisions, value-based decisions. Because that is the only way to build a program, on that type of a foundation.
“He will do that … It is not easy, but as long as he has the team effort of everyone here, it will work out — because it is a great school and it has some really good tradition, and he is terrific. So I do not see how it won’t work out; it just won’t work out overnight.”
Against Coach K’s Blue Devils, UVa made 16 field goals and shot 32 percent from the floor — both season lows. The 49 points matched the Cavaliers’ season low, and about 20 percent of their scoring came in the final 2:48, with the outcome long since decided.
If not for Jerome Meyinsse, Virginia’s margin of defeat would have been greater. For the second straight game, with teammate Mike Scott again all but invisible, the 6-9 senior from Baton Rouge, La., posted a career high in scoring.
“Jerome carried us tonight,” Scott said. “I couldn’t do nothing.”
Meyinsse, who had 13 points at Miami last Tuesday, scored 21 against Duke (12-2, 25-4). He hit 6 of 8 shots from the floor and 9 for 11 from the line and fearlessly took on bigger Blue Devils inside.
“Once I found out that Sylven was out, I just tried to be more aggressive on the offensive end, because we had to make up about 18, 19 points,” Meyinsse said.
“I’m trying to play every game like it’s my last. Fight as hard as I can. I don’t want my career to end, but when it does end, I’m going to try to go out fighting.”
Also encouraging for Bennett was the play of freshman point guard Jontel Evans and sophomore center Assane Sene, neither of whom started. Evans contributed 5 points, 3 steals, 1 assist and 1 blocked shot in 24 minutes. Sene played 27 and pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds.
The 7-0 Sene also had two blocks and an assist.
“Those guys like Assane and Jerome and Jontel, they really battled,” Bennett said. “They laid it out there … If I have to try and find something positive about this, I would say it was those three.”
With Landesberg out, the ‘Hoos lost more than points. The 6-6 swingman leads the team in assists and is second in rebounds.
“We really need him in the game,” Sene said. “We lost Sylven [and] Mike too, because Mike didn’t play well tonight.
“Without both of them, it’s really hard for us to win. But we’ve just got to keep working hard.”
As recently as Friday night, Bennett had expressed confidence that Landesberg would play against Duke. But Landesberg’s thigh — he suffered a deep bruise late in the first half at Miami — has responded slowly to treatment.
Landesberg, the ACC rookie of the year as a freshman in 2008-09, was able to finish the game in Coral Gables, but he didn’t practice Friday or Saturday.
Still, he wanted to play against the Devils. Before the game Sunday night, Bennett said, the coaching staff put Landesberg “in the back gym and tried to make him cut hard. He couldn’t even move. I said, ‘OK, I’m going to give you one chance. Give me a full-blast layup, let me see what you can do.'”
Landesberg couldn’t do much.
“He labored,” Bennett said. “He couldn’t [move well], and I’m trying to think long-term. I don’t want him to irritate and aggravate that. Hopefully Wednesday [at Boston College] he’ll be better and able to play. He was dying to play. He knows we need him. That’s obvious when you watch us, but he couldn’t really go. If we’d have thrown him out there, it would have been bad for him, and he couldn’t have kept up.”
For the season, Scott (12.3 ppg) remains Virginia’s No. 2 scorer, but the 6-8 junior has faded into the shadows recently. Coming off an 0-for-7 effort at Miami, Scott went 0 for 6 from the floor versus Duke and, for the second consecutive game, failed to score.
“I can’t buy a basket,” Scott said. “There’s a lid up there. I don’t know what it is.”
Scott played only 12 minutes Sunday night, during which he had 1 rebound and 2 turnovers.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Bennett said. “I thought Rome battled his butt off and he gave us some stuff. I didn’t see it from Mike in this game, and we struggled. In a game like this, for us to even make it competitive, we needed a number of guys [to step up].”
Scott “got some good looks,” Bennett said. “He just wasn’t himself the last couple games. Against a team like Duke, you just gotta be so locked in, the entire game. He just didn’t look like himself, and that was my decision to say, ‘You know what? Rome is battling his guts out there, and so is Assane,’ and that’s why I went with [those two players inside].”
On the perimeter, Evans supplied an unexpected spark. He’d played only 3 minutes at Miami, where Bennett chose to tighten the rotation.
“It’s tough trying to be ready to play when you don’t play a lot of minutes like that,” Evans said. “But the coaching staff always says, ‘Be ready,’ and today I was just ready. I had a feeling my number was going to be called, and I just wanted to go out there and try my best.”
Bennett loved what he saw from the 5-11 Evans, especially at the defensive end.
“Tenacious kid,” Bennett said. “He’s very tough. He knows in the offseason he’s gotta go to work and try and tighten up that shot a little bit. If he can add that and continue to get better feel, I think that will help his game a lot.”
Meyinsse was the only player to score in double figures for UVa. For Duke, junior forward Kyle Singler had 21 points, and senior guard Jon Scheyer added 20 points and 5 steals.
“He’s a great player,” Evans said of Scheyer, an ACC-player-of-the-year candidate. “Very intelligent. He doesn’t get rushed.”
Two regular-season games remain for UVa, which visits BC on Wednesday night and then hosts Maryland on Saturday afternoon. The Cavaliers will then play at least one game in the ACC tournament.
Virginia is not as talented as many other teams, Sene said, but “we’ve just got to keep playing hard.”
Evans echoed those comments.
“Like Coach Bennett said, if we lose the rest of these games or win the rest of the games, we’re still a family, and we’ve got to stick together and finish this season out,” Evans said.
“I know [the losing is] getting to guys a little bit, but everybody’s still staying focused. There will be better days. Just look forward to the future. That’s all I can say.”
Bennett said: “It’s a challenge, but like I’ve said, I understand the big picture, and that’s what I’m working towards, and we’ll keep going ahead.”