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By Jeff White
jwhite@virginia.edu

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Stop by John Paul Jones Arena this week, and you might run into Monica Wright, who’s visiting her alma mater after a stellar rookie season in the WNBA.

Debbie Ryan loves having Wright around again, but the former All-American is also a reminder of the challenge facing UVa this season.

In her 34th season as Virginia’s coach, Ryan must replace the program’s all-time leading scorer. Wright also was a force on defense for the Wahoos during her illustrious career.

The good news for UVa is that everyone else returns from a team that went 21-10 and advanced to the NCAA tournament. There’s not another Monica Wright on the roster, but the ‘Hoos are “going to be a lot more diversified, because we have outside shooting, and we have a good inside game, so we’re going to take advantage of that,” Ryan said

“Sometimes last year we did not take advantage of that. And I think we’ll be a much better rebounding team this year.”

Virginia’s 2010-11 schedule was released last week. It includes non-conference games at Tennessee and Ohio State (as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge), as well as a late-November trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the ‘Hoos will meet Iowa State, West Virginia and TCU in the Paradise Jam.

“The schedule’s very tough,” Ryan said.

“The great part about it is you’re prepared for the ACC. You just have to be careful not to have your team lose confidence. That’s the only thing that I would worry about, but I think there’s enough games in there where we can get our feet underneath us and learn and get to be a pretty good team. Because that’s really going to be the strength of this group: They’re going to be together, and the scoring’s going to be spread, and there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for everybody.”

Virginia has only two seniors: guard Paulisha Kellum and forward Jayna Hartig. Ryan’s other veterans include six players who started at least 10 games apiece last season: 6-3 sophomore Simone Egwu (29), 6-2 junior Chelsea Shine (29), 5-7 junior Ariana Moorer (20), 5-11 sophomore Lexie Gerson (15), 5-6 sophomore China Crosby (13) and 5-11 junior Whitny Edwards (10). Also back is Whitny’s twin, Britny, a 6-1 junior who averaged nearly 9 minutes per game in 2009-10.

Crosby, who in 2009 became the first McDonald’s All-American to enroll at UVa since Wright, tore her left ACL in early January and missed the rest of the season. Her rehab has gone well, though, and Crosby should be ready for the Nov. 12 opener at Hofstra.

“China’s doing everything except contact,” Ryan said. “She’s been conditioning, she’s been doing everything. She goes through every individual workout … Unless there are complications, I don’t anticipate anything to keep her from being ready for the start of the season.”

A foot injury sidelined another UVa freshman last season: 6-4 Erinn Thompson. Like Crosby’s, Thompson’s rehab has gone well.

“We’re just being careful and cautious and not having her maybe run the same times [in conditioning drills] as some of the other players,” Ryan said. “Because you can’t, with the stress-fracture kind of thing. We’ve been cautious with her, but she’s doing extremely well, playing pick-up, doing everything.”

Three freshmen have joined the program: 5-10 guard Kelsey Wolfe, 5-11 guard Ataira Franklin and 6-1 forward Jazmin Pitts. Wolfe (Seneca Valley High) and Franklin (Riverdale Baptist) are from Maryland; Pitts (Cosby High), from the Richmond area.

“Ataira and Kelsey are going to make immediate contributions,” Ryan said. “Kelsey is a knock-down shooter. Ataira has an overall game and just plays with incredible heart and has a long, long reach. So she’s difficult to play against, because she’s such a great defender.”

And Pitts?

“We’re catching Jazmin up right now,” Ryan said. “She’s struggling with all the conditioning, but she’ll fine once we get to the season. And she’s the type of player that’s sort of like a mini-Barkley. She’s going to give us some good rebounding inside to start.”

Wright (23.7) was the only Cavalier who averaged more than 8 points last season. Ryan expects her second-year players to help make up for Wright’s lost production. That class consists of Crosby, Thompson, Gerson, Egwu and Telia McCall, a 6-1 post player who had 20 rebounds in a Feb. 15 win over North Carolina.

“I think all our second-years are tremendously better,” Ryan said. “And I’ll tell you, Simone Egwu is just playing great, and so is Telia McCall. The biggest jump between freshman and sophomore year is usually that summer between, and those two have taken huge leaps.

“And Lexie’s another one. I’ve tried to get her to slow the game down so she can make better decisions and not just be out playing with no purpose. I think now she’s got purpose to her game, and she’s come a long, long way in terms of her consistency.”

Egwu (4.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and McCall (4.1 ppg, 4.2 rgp) each played about 16 minutes per game in 2009-10.

“With extended minutes Telia will get a lot more rebounds, and Simone is really going to be a better player all the way around,” Ryan said. “Remember, Simone was only 17 coming in last year, so she was not only fighting being a freshman, she should have been a high school senior at that time. And it’s a big leap, especially for a post player. So we see just a totally different young woman right now on the floor.”

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