By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Reinforcements are on the way. Tony Bennett’s recruits for 2010-11 are scheduled to arrive on Grounds in June, so UVa’s hoops coach will soon have a full complement of players again.
For now, though, Bennett is working with a severely depleted roster. The Cavaliers went through most of the 2009-10 season with 11 scholarship players, two fewer than the NCAA limit, and only five are still in the program.
Jerome Meyinsse, Solomon Tat and Calvin Baker were seniors, so their departures were expected. But three players who had eligibility left — Sylven Landesberg, Jeff Jones and Tristan Spurlock — chose, for various reasons, to continue their basketball careers elsewhere.
“It feels really weird looking around,” Jontel Evans said after a recent workout in John Paul Jones Arena. “There’s only a couple of guys left.”
From a team that finished 15-16 in Bennett’s first season at UVa, returning scholarship players are guards Evans, Sammy Zeglinski and Mustapha Farrakhan, forward Mike Scott and center Assane Sene. There’s also walk-on Will Sherrill, a 6-9 forward who was a key member of the Wahoos’ rotation.
“Everybody that’s here right now has totally bought into Coach Bennett’s system,” said Evans, a rising sophomore who started 11 games at point guard in 2009-10.
“We have no distractions, no negativity. Not saying the other guys that transferred or left had negativity, but this group right here is just real positive, and we’re all real focused and on the same page.”
NCAA rules allow teams to periodically practice in small groups after the season ends. With Zeglinski recovering from surgery on his hip — he hopes to be back on the court in July — UVa’s coaching staff has little more than one small group with which to work.
At this time last year, UVa had about twice as many returning players.
“It’s definitely different than anything I’ve ever experienced,” Farrakhan said, “having only, like, six guys. But we’re all just staying together as a family and pushing each other. We know we’ve been through a lot of adversity, but like Coach said, we just need to concentrate on staying together and being positive and taking advantage of the time in the gym right now.”
The attrition, Zeglinski said, has made the remaining players “focus in a little bit more, pay more attention to detail and kind of make this program go in the right direction. We’re going to have a lot of new guys coming in, so we want to set a good example.”
Six recruits have signed with UVa for 2010-11 — 6-1 Billy Baron, 6-4 K.T. Harrell, 6-6 Joe Harris, 6-7 Akil Mitchell, 6-8 Will Regan and 6-9 James Johnson. It’s not out of the question that another player might join the class.
“It’s going to be fun next year, just because we’re going to have to so many new faces,” Zeglinski said.
About half of the team will be freshmen. The seniors, in terms of basketball eligibility, will be Farrakhan, Scott and Sherrill. (Zeglinski will be a redshirt junior.) Scott is the team’s top returning scorer and rebounder.
Bennett’s expectations for his veterans?
“Just lead by example and lead by voice, both,” he said. “These guys have an advantage, because they’ve had a year of understanding what we value as a staff. Because of that they can be a little more assertive in their leadership role with their actions and with their voice.
“I think it’s gotta be both. Quite honestly, everybody’s got different personalities, but each of them has to step outside their comfort zone a little bit and take the young players under their wings, from a social standpoint and from a playing standpoint. Compete with them, but lead them. And you can do both, you really can, and have a healthy balance.”
The key, Farrakhan said, is to “make sure everybody’s accountable for one another and just make sure everybody continues to work to get better. We’re going to have a pretty young team, and the three seniors have to try to set an example to build a foundation for the young guys.”
Virginia had two first-year players in 2009-10 — Spurlock and Evans — both of whom signed when Dave Leitao was head coach. So the incoming class is, in effect, Bennett’s first at UVa.
The recruits will come “in a little wide-eyed, not knowing what to expect,” Bennett said. “I think they’ll gel nicely with the existing players, because the existing guys are all about the right things.”
Zeglinski said: “I think it’ll be good. We’re going to help them out. They’re going to go through some struggles, obviously, being freshmen, and we’ll be there to help guide them along the way. They’re real talented, and we’re excited to see what they can do. We’ll get ’em here this summer and start working, because next year we definitely want to be more unified as a team and just stay together throughout the whole season and be more consistent.”