By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — If there were a grandfather clock in the men’s practice gym at John Paul Jones Arena, it would have been chiming when the players gathered at midcourt Friday.
It was 5 p.m., the earliest on Oct. 15 that the NCAA would allow a men’s basketball team to hold its first official practice for 2010-11.
Tony Bennett stayed behind in the locker room. For the next 15 minutes, the voice his players heard was that of Mike Curtis, UVa’s second-year strength-and-conditioning coach for men’s hoops.
Curtis led the Cavaliers through a series of drills and stretches. An emphatic dunk by first-year forward Akil Mitchell capped this session, and then Bennett took over.
“If we want to win, we have to eliminate losing first,” Virginia’s second-year coach told his players.
And that, Bennett said, means no second shots for opponents. No easy transition baskets for opponents. No careless turnovers by UVa.
“We’re trying to just build habits and get better each day,” Bennett said after working the team for about 130 minutes. “That’s kind of the theme for us, really: to establish what’s important and keep getting better.”
Once the fall semester begins, the NCAA allows a coaching staff to periodically work with players in small groups and as a team before Oct. 15. In reality, then, this was not the Wahoos’ first practice for 2010-11. The drills were familiar to the players, as was the terminology.
Still, this session was different, Bennett said, and not only because the team broke out its sharp new practice uniforms.
“The biggest adjustment for [the players] is, I’m not as worried about the clock now,” Bennett said. “You’re going to stay in there until you do it absolutely perfect, the way I want it … and not letting them pass on to another drill or get out of a possession, because the clock isn’t against us, as it was all fall. So they got a taste of what we demand execution-wise, and I think that’s where you establish those building blocks that we talked about.”
Of the 13 players on the roster, seven are freshmen, including Thomas Rogers, a walk-on who came to UVa from Fork Union Military Academy’s postgraduate team.
“When you can work with them for a longer period of time, they need to understand what’s important to your program, and I think we’re trying to establish that,” Bennett said. “But you gotta walk before you can run, and I think we’re in that stage right now.”
For much of the practice, Bennett and assistant coaches Ritchie McKay, Ron Sanchez and Jason Williford had only 11 players with whom to work: seniors Mike Scott, Mustapha Farrakhan and Will Sherrill, junior Assane Sene, sophomore Jontel Evans, and freshmen Mitchell, Rogers, Will Regan, Billy Baron, Joe Harris and K.T. Harrell.
Junior Sammy Zeglinski, a candidate to start at point guard, is out with a knee injury. Freshman James Johnson, a candidate to start at center, injured his right ankle early in the first practice. Like the 6-1 Zeglinski, the 6-9 Johnson watched the end of practice from a chair on the sideline.
“You want to get those guys healthy, getting the reps and getting used to what we’re trying to do,” Bennett said. “James rolled his ankle, and hopefully that’ll be OK, but he missed a large chunk of practice. And Sammy with his knee, that’s frustrating, because Sammy was coming along great [after offseason hip surgery]. I feel more for him. But it’s part of the game, and you’ve just got to go with it.”
With Johnson out, UVa’s only center was the 7-0 Assane Sene, who weighed in before practice at 242 pounds, the heaviest he’s been in his 21 years.
He’s still lean, but the added weight and strength are helping Sene become more assertive in the low post.
“I just keep working hard,” Sene said, “and every time I come on the court I make sure that everybody sees my presence on the court. It’s been helpful, so I’ve just to keep doing it and keep working hard.”
Sene’s daily regimen includes the consumption of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches — many, many PBJs.
“I’ve had only two yet today,” Sene said with a smile after practice. “Definitely I will have one before I go to bed, and I’ll probably stop at Chipotle and get some food over there. I’ve just got to force myself to eat. It’s not easy, but I know that it will help, so I’ve just got to keep doing it, and I cannot wait for someone else to tell me what to do.
“It’s been helping me a lot on the court, so I’ve just got to keep working hard and eating a lot.”
The ‘Hoos look little like the group that finished 15-16 in Bennett’s first season. From the team that Bennett inherited when he replaced Dave Leitao in the spring of 2009, seven players have, for various reasons, moved on: Sylven Landesberg, Jeff Jones, Jerome Meyinsse, Calvin Baker, Solomon Tat, Jamil Tucker and Tristan Spurlock.
Virginia’s most experienced player is Scott, a 6-8, 242-pound forward who averaged 12 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds last season. He’s been virtually unstoppable this fall, and Scott has embraced his leadership role on a team that has more freshmen than juniors and seniors.
“I still need to be a better leader,” Scott said after his final first practice at UVa, “but as far as being a captain, I’m trying to teach, but I’m trying to learn also.”
On this day last year, UVa’s players were still adjusting to Bennett, whose coaching philosophy and style differ dramatically from those of Leitao.
Now, Scott said, it’s “definitely easier for me, because I know to expect. I know these young guys are just wondering what’s going on.”
Bennett said he was able to accomplish more in the first practice this year than in 2009, because of his veterans’ familiarity with his system.
“And then with our newcomers, with the six young guys, it’s fast and furious for them,” Bennett said. “But it’s a really hard-working group. We got a lot done. And I think with the NCAA rules, being able to have some team time before the official start, that has helped.”
Bennett opened practice with a rebounding drill that had bodies crashing to the court. He closed with a grueling three-on-three drill in which an offensive player could take only one dribble before passing the ball. The players’ exhaustion was palpable by the end.
“That’s very intense,” Scott said.
Bennett said: “I like to start practice with something very physical and very hard. [Rebounding] is going to be huge for us to be good this year. And I always like to end it with a real important thing that demands physicality. And I think that’s when [players] don’t want to do it as much, at the end of practice. There are a lot of things we need to do, but those were some of the essential things.”