By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He’s long since established himself as a potent scorer and rebounder for the UVa men’s basketball team. Now Mike Scott wants to add another line to his résumé:
As recently as four months ago, that possibility might have seemed far-fetched to many in the program. In his first season under Tony Bennett, Scott carried himself much as he had under Dave Leitao.
At times, the 6-8, 240-pound forward from Chesapeake displayed the skills that make him one of the ACC’s most gifted post players. During other stretches, though, Scott faded into the shadows, sometimes when his team needed him most.
On the court and off, Scott was not a player from whom the coaching staff ever knew for sure what it would get, but that’s changing. As he heads into his final year at UVa, Scott has eagerly assumed a leadership role in a program that has lost seven scholarship players over the past eight months, for various reasons, and added six freshmen this summer.
“He’s been very, very good in regards to just taking care of his business,” assistant coach Jason Williford said.
“He’s on point academically. He’s showing up in the weight room with [strength-and-conditioning coach] Mike Curtis and getting after it in there. He’s working hard in the gym, from what the guys are saying to us. He’s getting in extra shots. He periodically stops by the office.
“He just seems like he’s growing up, you know?”
It’s not uncommon to see Scott in the coaches’ office at John Paul Jones Arena these days. That hasn’t always been the case.
“He wouldn’t come in,” Williford said. “I think that the trust is now there. I think that was natural. It took him awhile to sort of open up.”
Scott, who’s on track to graduate next spring with a bachelor’s in anthropology, hasn’t forgotten the summer of 2007, his first at UVa. So he knows the challenges facing the first-year players.
“They’re tired, they got school, they got orientation, which means they got to be in a classroom all day,” Scott said last week at JPJ. “And then they come here and play basketball and do it all over again. It’s tough.”
The Wahoos’ 2010-11 roster includes twice as many freshmen (K.T. Harrell, Billy Baron, Joe Harris, Will Regan, Akil Mitchell, James Johnson) as seniors (Scott, Mustapha Farrakhan, Will Sherrill).
“They just need some leadership,” Scott said of the first-year players, “and with this young team we have, someone has to step up.”
Scott, who turns 22 this week, took it upon himself to be that guy. He texts the other players daily with information about the pickup games at JPJ and other team matters.
“Just letting them know basically what’s going on on a day-to-day basis,” Scott said. “Something may pop up, and if I don’t sent a text, I don’t think anyone will know. I’m not saying no one else would step up and send a text or anything, but everyone would just be like, ‘What are we going to do?’ “
Given his status on the team — Scott is the Wahoos’ top returning scorer (12 ppg) and rebounder (7.2) — it’s important that he be a mentor to the freshmen, especially frontcourt players Johnson, Regan and Mitchell.
“Absolutely,” Williford said. “He has to show them work ethic and what it takes to play at this level, and I think he’s doing that.”
That Scott can play at this level is unquestioned. Just look at his ACC career highs: 21 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocked shots and 3 steals, respectively. He’s made 6 of 12 shots from 3-point range against ACC foes and is a career 73-percent free-throw shooter in conference games.
Inconsistency is why all-ACC honors have eluded him. After grabbing a total of 33 rebounds in consecutive games against N.C. State, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech last season, for example, Scott totaled 16 boards in his next three games.
“He’s just puzzling at times,” said Williford, who works closely with UVa’s big men. “You’re like, ‘How come he just can’t be as good as he can be all the time?’
“It’s frustrating, but I think it’s equally frustrating for Mike, because he wants to please, and he wants to do well. Sometimes I think upstairs he gets a little locked up and starts thinking too much.”
That contributed to the worst stretch of Scott’s basketball career. After scoring 14 points in a Feb. 20 loss at Clemson, he went 0 for 7 from the floor and failed to score in UVa’s next game, a loss at Miami.
Five days later, with Virginia’s leading scorer, Sylven Landesberg, sidelined by an injury, Scott went 0 for 6 from the floor and again went scoreless, this time in a one-sided loss to Duke at JPJ.
“After the Miami game, I was like, ‘I never want to play like that again. That’s my worst game ever,’ ” Scott recalled. “Then after the Duke game I said, ‘Man, somebody doesn’t like me.’ “
He realizes now, however, that he must take responsibility for his subpar play in those games — another example of his growing maturity.
“I just kept getting on myself after mistake after mistake,” Scott said. “It just kept getting worse. I was doing the wrong things to try to make it right, thinking, ‘Maybe if I score, it’ll all go away,’ instead of, ‘I’m not scoring right now; maybe I’ll play defense, get some rebounds, do something else.’
“I was just worried about scoring, and it just kept getting worse and worse, like a snowball effect. I was thinking about the game in the wrong way.”
The Cavaliers had other problems, of course. Bennett went into his first season at UVa believing his options would include Landesberg, Jamil Tucker and Calvin Baker. Tucker never played for UVa in 2009-10, and neither Landesberg nor Baker was with the team at the ACC tournament.
Then, after the season ended, Jeff Jones and Tristan Spurlock announced plans to transfer, and Landesberg left to pursue a pro career.
“I think last year we had a lot of off-the-court issues that just, I guess, carried onto the court,” Scott said. “There was just a lot of off-the-court stuff we had going on, a lot of mental things.”
The 2010-11 Cavaliers should be, if nothing else, a more cohesive group. Every player in the program understands what Bennett and his assistants expect.
It’s too early for Scott to assess the talent level of this team, though he raves about the work ethic and drive of the freshmen. With at least five newcomers likely to be in the rotation, a total team effort will be required if the ‘Hoos are to break through in Bennett’s second season.
“We’re not going to be able to do it alone,” Scott said. “It’s not like all the returners are going to be able to pick this team up [by themselves].
“Nah, it’s definitely not going to be like that with this team. We’re definitely going to need everyone, especially the freshmen. Every man, every coach, every manager. Everyone.”
At Deep Creek High in Chesapeake, Scott wore jersey No. 30. At Hargrave Military Academy, where he spent a postgraduate year, he switched to No. 32. He wanted to wear 30 at UVa, but Adrian Joseph had that number when Scott arrived, so he stuck with 32.
This season you’ll see him rocking No. 23, which became available when Jones decided to transfer.
“I don’t know why I did it,” Scott said with a smile. “Something different.”