By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — With UVa’s first-ever football game in California looming, Tony Bennett sat down this week to talk about his basketball team’s 2010-11 schedule.
Better than most, he understands the magnitude of the challenge facing Mike London’s Cavaliers on Saturday night at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Bennett spent six years in the Pac-10 before coming to UVa in 2009.
“I’ve been to many USC football games at Washington State,” Bennett said. “I’m just glad that Reggie Bush is not in the backfield. I remember the first time seeing him. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.”
Bennett may think he’s back in the Pac-10 at times this season. Virginia’s opponents include Stanford, Washington and Oregon.
A season ago, UVa’s non-conference foes included South Florida, Stanford, Auburn, Penn State and UAB. None made the NCAA tournament.
In 2010-11, the Wahoos are assured of meeting Washington and Minnesota, both of which made the NCAAs last season. The ‘Hoos also will play at least one of these teams at the Maui Invitational in November: Kentucky, Michigan State, Connecticut, Oklahoma and Wichita State.
“That field in Maui is one of the best they’ve had in recent years,” Bennett said.
UConn and Wichita State played in the NIT last season, as did William and Mary. Virginia opens the season against W&M on Nov. 12 at John Paul Jones Arena, also the site of games against Iowa State on Dec. 30 and LSU on Jan. 2.
“It certainly is an upgrade,” Bennett said of his second schedule at UVa. “I think it’ll really test you, and we always say that when you play against excellent competition, you determine quickly where you’re strong and what you need to work on.
“Some teams, they don’t get a clear picture of that until they get in conference play. That won’t the case here.”
From a team that finished 15-16, Bennett lost three of his top five scorers: swingman Sylven Landesberg (17.3 ppg), shooting guard Jeff Jones (7.3) and center Jerome Meyinsse (6.5). Virginia added six freshmen — James Johnson, Will Regan, Akil Mitchell, Joe Harris, K.T. Harrell and Billy Baron — and many of them figure to play key roles immediately.
“Baptism by fire,” Bennett said with a laugh.
“Sometimes you can bite off more than you can chew, but in these phases of building a program, it’s all about preparing yourself the best you can to be ready for conference play.
“Again, you hope that you don’t mess with guys’ confidence if you’re struggling or overdo it, but I think players want to play against that competition. Certainly fans want to see you against those [high-caliber opponents]. For coaches, it’s challenging, but it forces you to go into the lab right away and say, ‘OK, where do we gotta improve? Where are we strong?’ There’s no hiding, and you’re going to figure some things out.”
Of UVa’s returning players, four started at least 10 games apiece last season: 6-0 junior Sammy Zeglinski (29), 6-8 senior Mike Scott (25), 5-11 sophomore Jontel Evans (11) and 6-4 senior Mustapha Farrakhan (10). Moreover, 6-9 senior Will Sherrill started seven games and 7-0 junior Assane Sene started five.
Since the start of the semester, UVa’s coaches have been able to work with the players several times week, and Bennett has been impressed with his first-year class, which arrived with accolades. But the Cavaliers’ veterans aren’t going to relinquish playing time to the newcomers without a battle. That’s how it should be, Bennett said.
“I tell every player that I recruit that there will be nothing guaranteed, and you’ll have to compete, whether you’re a returner or an incoming player,” he said. “A coach’s job is to put the best team on the floor and give yourself the best chance to be successful. I think the young men that were in the program last year understand that.
“Everybody wants to play, and that’s healthy. But not everybody does play. I’ve challenged our returners to be leaders, to embrace the young kids, to show them the ropes. They have a familiarity obviously that the young kids don’t have, with school, with our system, and with what I’ve seen so far, I’ve been impressed with the camaraderie and the chemistry that’s beginning to develop.”
Scott, who averaged 12 points and 7.2 rebounds last season, has drawn praise from the coaching staff for his attitude and leadership skills. Bennett likes what he’s seen from the other seniors, too, including Farrakhan.
“Mu looks good, looks stronger,” Bennett said. “Like Mike, knowing he’s going into his final year, it looks like there’s a presence about him. He looks like he’s stronger and more settled in than last year at this time, which is good. He knows we’ll need the leadership.”
Zeglinski played hurt for much of last season and needed surgery on his left hip in April. He’s back at full speed, and Bennett said reports from head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba indicate that Zeglinski “hasn’t up to this point had any issues.”
“They’re going at it hard [in workouts],” Bennett said. “I think the real test will come as the volume increases, as the season wears on, but he feels good and is moving well without trouble.”
Zeglinski began and ended 2009-10 as UVa’s starting point guard. During some parts of the season, though, he played more at shooting guard. Bennett’s other options at the point include Evans and Baron.
“There’s going to be competition, and I like the versatility of our guards,” Bennett said. “We got some guys that can handle the ball, shoot it, pass it and are complete on the offensive end, where you can have a number of different combinations.
“Mustapha’s even played it some. Joe and K.T. can handle the ball and shoot, so there’s strength in numbers in terms of that. A lot of times it’s a question of, ‘Can you guard a point guard defensively?’ That’s where you determine your matchups.”
Virginia opens ACC play Dec. 5 against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Only two of the Wahoos’ first eight games, in fact, are at JPJ.
“I think it’s a very challenging schedule for this team,” said Jon Oliver, UVa’s executive associate director of athletics. “A lot of great young kids are going to have to grow up quick, and our veterans are going to have to play well. They’re going to get tested early and often.”