By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — There wasn’t much talk about the past Wednesday at John Paul Jones Arena. Most questions from reporters at UVa’s media day — and most of the answers from Tony Bennett and his players — concerned the present and, especially, the future.
That’s understandable. Virginia is coming off a 15-16 season and hasn’t been consistently relevant in men’s basketball for years. But six of the 12 scholarship players in Bennett’s program are freshmen, and they didn’t come to the University to lose.
K.T. Harrell, a 6-4 shooting guard from Montgomery, Ala., said he picked Virginia because he wanted to do “something out of the ordinary. It’s definitely going to be tough, but I think all of the first-years here expected it to be tough, and we want that challenge, and we’re ready for it.”
Will Regan, a 6-8 power forward from Buffalo, echoed his classmate’s comments. Like Harrell, who also had scholarship offers from such schools as Alabama, Auburn and Arkansas, Regan had other options. He could have gone to such schools as Maryland, Arizona State and Stanford, but Regan chose UVa.
“It’s not about what the program has done, it’s what the program is going to do,” Regan said. “That’s kind of how my mindset was when I was in high school and how I think a lot of our mindsets are now.”
Another first-year player, 6-2 point guard Billy Baron, has been through other successful rebuilding projects, if only as a spectator. His father is Jim Baron, one of the college game’s most respected coaches. The elder Baron is now at the University of Rhode Island, to which Billy committed before changing his mind and signing with UVa.
“I’ve seen it,” Baron said. “My father did it at Saint Francis, St. Bonaventure and now URI. That’s all he’s done. It’s really inspiring, because you do build something and you have a chance to really make yourself remembered here, playing for a guy like Coach Bennett, who was national coach of the year [at Washington State] and played in the NBA. There’s nothing better.”
Counting walk-on Thomas Rogers, more than half of Virginia’s players are freshmen, which should make for some interesting moments in 2010-11. Since the end of last season, three players who had eligibility remaining, including leading scorer Sylven Landesberg, have left the program, and the Wahoos also must replace center Jerome Meyinsse, who was a senior in 2009-10.
In some ways, Bennett acknowledged, he feels as if he’s heading into his first season at UVa and not his second.
“There’s more familiarity, certainly, with the guys that have been in our program, the returners, but with this many newcomers, there is a starting over,” Bennett said. “But it is a process. I’ve said that all along, and this is part of it. But there’s a little bit of uncertainty about what to expect, how guys will adjust and how quickly they’ll adjust.”
It doesn’t take long to list UVa’s veterans: seniors Mike Scott, Mustapha Farrakhan and Will Sherrill, juniors Sammy Zeglinski and Assane Sene, and sophomore Jontel Evans.
“They’ve done a good job, our returners, of taking the younger guys and explaining some things, working with them on the side and saying, ‘This is what’s expected,’ ” Bennett said.
“They will be crucial in speeding up the process, because some of those young guys will have to contribute, just by sheer numbers.”
Of the returning players, the 6-8, 242-pound Scott is probably the only one assured of a starting spot. But the veterans have embraced the newcomers.
“They’ve been great,” Regan said, “so it’s been the ideal scenario. They’re great leaders and took us under their wings. They want to do well too, so it’s not like they’re going to divide the team or something.”
Sherrill said: “I think everybody’s taken more ownership of this program. Everybody wants to make this season a successful one. [The seniors have] had a lot of struggles in our three years here, so for some of us this is our last chance.”
Virginia won its first three ACC games last season, a surprising start that had fans dreaming of a trip to the NCAA tournament. The euphoria didn’t last. The ‘Hoos closed the regular season with nine straight losses.
“We had tough times,” Sherrill said. “And I think when we were going through that stretch, it wasn’t fun. Not just because we were losing — we were in a bad losing streak — but we had a lot of divisiveness on our team, and even going to practice wasn’t fun. I think the key for us this year is that no matter what happens we’ve got to have better chemistry, better unity, so that we can face any adversity we can come across.”
Asked what differences he sees in Bennett’s second team, Sherill said, “I think for one our workouts have been really intense. Everybody works really hard. There’s definitely a noticeable difference between this year and last year in terms of the intensity of the workouts. It obviously hasn’t been perfect. There’s a lot of things we need to work on. But that’s the main thing that sticks out to me.”
Zeglinski agreed. “Now it feels like everybody who’s here wants to be here and has bought in. It’s exciting.”
Bennett came to UVa from Washington State, where he and his father, Dick, rebuilt a program that, when they arrived, was an afterthought in the Pac-10. Tony spent three seasons as Dick’s top assistant before moving into the big chair after the 2005-06 season.
At the core of the Bennetts’ revitalization project was a large recruiting class, similar in some ways to the one that enrolled at UVa this year. As those Cougars gained experience, the program improved. But there were growing pains.
“We went through some battles, and it was tough, and it did take them time,” Bennett said. “But there was a completeness and a resiliency in that group that I believe is in this group. It certainly will be tested. But I know that if they’re resilient and they will stay together, then you will see some nice things happen.”
SNAPSHOTS: Bennett fielded questions for about 35 minutes Wednesday. At one point he was asked to talk about each of his freshmen, a group that comprises Harrell, Baron, Regan, James Johnson, a 6-9 post player from Wildomar, Calif., Akil Mitchell, a 6-8 forward from Charlotte, N.C., Joe Harris, a 6-6 swingman from Chelan, Wash., and the 6-6 Rogers, a Farmville resident who spent a postgraduate year at Fork Union Military Academy.
Bennett’s early impressions:
*Baron — “He’s physically mature. He’s got a nice, strong body. Real competitive. Every day so far he’s been going a lot against Jontel, and that’s one of the best things for him, because Jontel is such a bulldog, and to have the advantage to go against that kind of strength and quickness will really be good for [Baron]. But he has a nice feel for the game. Just understands how to play. Again, he’s tough and physical and has a year under his belt [because] he played at a prep school. So that helps him.”
*Harris — “I don’t think in Lake Chelan they had quite the kind of speed and quickness and talent that he’s going against now, so the best thing for him is just playing against Mustapha and going against the other guys that really challenge him. But Joe is a complete player. I like his completeness. Sometimes he’ll be stereotyped as a guy who’s kind of just a spot-guy shooter, but he has more than that. And again, understands the game. Played some point guard in high school. Has good size, a quick release, passes well.”
*Harrell — “Very physically strong, mature body, very steady. What I like about K.T., what I’ve seen so far, is that he’s very composed. He doesn’t get sped up. I think that’s a common thing with young players, that they want to go a million miles per hour, especially when you’re throwing new things at them, and K.T. has a very nice pace to him, where he allows the game to come to him.”
*Regan — ” ‘Buffalo Will.’ We’ve got two Wills, so we’re trying to come up with a name [for the freshman]. He’s a big Buffalo Bills fan. I don’t know if that’ll stick or not. We’ve got a few names we’re throwing out there. I’ve said this before about him: He won’t wow you with his athleticism, but he grows on you over time, because he understands how to play, how to screen. He’ll do all the little things that are necessary. Runs the floor real hard. Real hard-playing young man at 6-8. Physical. Likes to bang.”
*Mitchell — “Akil’s grown a little bit. Gotten stronger, more athletic. Akil really has nice potential. He does have a nice upside, and he’s versatile. He can play. He’s just a skilled forward. I think his best basketball is certainly ahead of him as he continues to get a feel for it.”
*Johnson — “Real aggressive, real physical. Loves to bang. He has a nice upside. With K.T. and James, interestingly, they did not play high school basketball their junior years. With James, he has an nice amount of potential, but he’s still raw, and as he gets a feel for it and gets used to play, I think we’re going to see good things.”
*Rogers — “He’s a terrific walk-on. Deep range on that shot, and he’ll do whatever’s asked of him.”
Bennett noted that he hadn’t said anything about the newcomers’ defensive skills, “because I don’t think they have a clue defensively what it will take to play the way we need to … But they’re willing, and that’s what’s good, and that’s where the returning players have to help in that regard and say, ‘This is important.’ “
Has a leader emerged in the first-year class?
“A little too early to tell,” Bennett said. “There’s a couple guys that look like they might. Before I answer that, I think I have to see them when we really get into practice and when there’s a little adversity. That’s when you kind of find out who the leaders are. It’s easy to lead when it’s going well and there’s no adversity going on.”