By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The season-opener for the UVa men’s basketball team is still months away, but with his first recruiting class finally on Grounds, it’s easier for second-year coach Tony Bennett to see his rebuilding project starting to take shape.
Its national ranking varies from recruiting service to recruiting service, but the six-member class that Bennett and his staff landed for 2010-11 is universally well-regarded.
The six: 6-9, 228-pound James Johnson, 6-8, 220-pound Will Regan, 6-8, 219-pound Akil Mitchell, 6-6, 200-pound Joe Harris, 6-4, 220-pound K.T. Harrell and 6-1, 189-pound Billy Baron.
(When the freshmen on Bennett’s 2009-10 team — Jontel Evans and Tristan Spurlock — signed their letters of intent, Dave Leitao was Virginia’s coach. Spurlock is in summer school at UVa but plans to transfer elsewhere before the start of the next academic year.)
The NCAA limits contact between college coaches and newcomers, but the first-year players started summer school at UVa this week, and Bennett is delighted they’re in town.
“This helps them in getting off to a good start academically, understanding the skills that will be needed to be successful early on, building the camaraderie and cohesiveness with their fellow teammates, and working with Mike Curtis and getting a base or foundation in,” Bennett said Friday morning. “And then really individually working on their games and also playing some pickup ball with their teammates.
“It’s a comprehensive thing you’re looking at, and you just want them to get off on the right foot. There’s going to be a lot thrown at them in the fall, and the summer gives you the ability to have your incoming guys — and your returners, but especially your incoming guys — get adjusted.”
Curtis is the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach, and he’s allowed to work with the freshmen and returning players this summer. Under NCAA rules, Bennett and his assistants are not permitted to do so, though the coaching staff sees the players when they drop by the offices at John Paul Jones Arena to visit.
Six players are back from Bennett’s first team at UVa: seniors Mike Scott, Mustapha Farrakhan and Will Sherrill; juniors Assane Sene and Sammy Zeglinski; and sophomore Jontel Evans.
Three players from the 2009-10 team who had eligibility remaining — Spurlock, Sylven Landesberg and Jeff Jones — left the program after the season, for various reasons.
“Everybody who’s here is extremely important,” Bennett said. “This is the foundation. The guys who returned are here because they want to be here, and they want to be part of building this, and then certainly the [first-year players] who chose Virginia are here because they have a strong desire to be part of this turnaround. It’s an important class for the future of Virginia basketball.”
Of UVa’s returning players, only Sherrill is not in town. He’s attending the World Cup in South Africa with his family, Bennett said. Zeglinski, however, is still recovering from an April operation on his left hip, and he’s not expected to be cleared for full participation until later this summer.
Bennett believes his veterans will mesh well with his newcomers.
“Our older kids, they’ll be great,” he said. “They’ll show [the freshmen] the ropes, they’ll form a good bond, because they’re all good kids.
“With Mike and Assane and Jontel and Mustapha and Sammy and Will, all of those guys, it’s an important time to bond and say, ‘OK, we know we’re in this to get this thing going in the right direction.’ “
NO RUSH: Two of the first-year players — Harrell and Mitchell — have yet to turn 18, so they’re young for their class. Bennett has left open the possibility of redshirting one of his freshmen, but any such move would not come until well into the fall.
“To me, [the freshmen have to] go through the summer and the fall, and then you stay and watch them through practice,” Bennett said. “Then you make the best educated decision as far as what’s going to help your team, what’s going to help the young men, whoever it would be, and just see where everything stands.
“I think it’s all on the table, but unless that was a deal coming in or someone really has that desire, I think it’s way premature now.”
WORK IN PROGRESS: Of the first-year players, Mitchell was the least heralded recruit — partly because of his age, and partly because it wasn’t clear which position he would play in college.
“You look at his body, he’s a young pup,” Bennett said. “Guys mature at a different rate, and you have to look and project, and with guys that are taller to start with, that play some inside, some outside, I think adjusting to where they play is important. But I think his strength is his versatility, and to pigeonhole him and say he’s just one spot would be a mistake.”
At UVa, Mitchell could end up at small forward. He could also become a power forward, or a hybrid of the two positions.
“We want him to develop and get as athletic and strong as he can and use to his strengths and wherever he can help this team,” Bennett said. “If it means he’s using his skill on the perimeter some and guarding and being a big 3, great. If it means he’s got to play the 4 and again use his skill, use his quickness, that’s it.
“The key is, he’s really willing to do whatever is going to help the team most.”
HAPPY HOST: For the fourth straight year, the NBA Players Association’s Top 100 camp is being held at JPJ, and Bennett, who spent three seasons with the Charlotte Hornets, has seen many familiar faces this week.
“A number of these guys were teammates or guys I played against, or just know,” Bennett said.
They include his longtime friends J.R. Reid — “You can’t ever mistake his deep, low voice,” Bennett said with a laugh — and P.J. Brown. Bennett and Brown were roommates at the NBA pre-draft camp in the early ’90s.
“These guys are like, ‘Tony, this facility is unbelievable,’ ” Bennett said. “I think for the NBA players and for this camp, from a venue standpoint, it’s ideal. I know the NBA people love it, and how can you not?”
At the camp, which started Wednesday and runs through Saturday, many of the elite players in the nation’s classes of 2011 and ’12 are competing each day. But NCAA rules prohibit UVa’s coaches from watching the camp or talking to prospects while it’s in session.
Still, Bennett said, “I’m not going to lie and say there’s no advantage to us. Certainly to have the families and the players in our facility, on the Grounds, that’s positive. From that standpoint, it’s great, but it’s not like we can have access to these kids.”