By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The first question Tony Bennett took from a reporter Wednesday afternoon concerned junior guard Sammy Zeglinski.
No surprise there. Zeglinski, who started 29 games last season, had knee surgery Tuesday and is expected to be sidelined about eight weeks.
With Zeglinski out, more than half of UVa’s healthy scholarship players — 6 of 11 — are freshmen.
“We were real young with him, and now we’re extremely young without him,” Bennett said at ACC Operation Basketball, the conference’s annual media day for men’s hoops.
Not surprisingly, the Cavaliers, in a vote of media members, were picked to finish 11th in the 12-team league. Virginia went 5-11 in ACC play and 15-16 overall in 2009-10.
“You’re saying we’re not picked first?” Bennett said, before the preseason poll was released Wednesday, when asked about the low expectations for his team.
Virginia’s second-year coach continued on a more serious note.
“At this phase, we certainly have goals, and we want to play well,” Bennett said. “But with our youth and inexperience, it’d be foolish for me to say, ‘I expect to win X amount of games and finish in this place.’ There’s so many unknowns, now with Sammy being out, about how this team will shake out. I just want us to get better as the year progresses and put us in a spot to be in a good place … If we can get ourselves playing the right way, I think there’s some pieces here, I think there’s some potential in this group.”
Until Zeglinski returns, Bennett has two full-time point guards in sophomore Jontel Evans and freshman Billy Baron. Another option at the point is senior Mustapha Farrakhan, who has spent most of his college career at shooting guard.
“It will be by committee,” Bennett said.
The Wahoos are especially young in the backcourt, where the 6-4 Farrakhan is the lone senior. Zeglinski is the only junior among UVa’s perimeter players, and he’s injured. That leaves Evans and freshmen Baron, K.T. Harrell and Joe Harris. Yet another wing is walk-on Thomas Rogers, a 6-6 freshman.
“Certainly those new guys who really want an opportunity to play will have a great opportunity on the perimeter,” Bennett said.
“I hope it’ll play dividends down the road, and if Sammy’s rehab goes well, he’ll be able to get back and be strong certainly for most of the ACC season. But it will provide opportunities and experiences, whether they’re ready or not, for our five perimeter players.
“I just feel bad for Sammy, because he was out, I can’t remember how many months this summer, [after having] hip surgery, and he was coming along nicely. He looked good. He looked physically strong, and his hip felt real good. And then this came up. This is his third major surgery. That’s hard for a young man.”
Farrakhan said: “It’s tough. That definitely caught everybody off guard when that happened. We just know that other guys have to mature faster and get ready for play. We all rallied behind Sammy and just hope he gets better quick and has a speedy recovery.”
A year ago, Bennett and Sylven Landesberg represented UVa at ACC Operation Basketball in Greensboro, N.C. This time, two of the team’s three seniors, Farrakhan and 6-8, 243-pound forward Mike Scott, traveled to Charlotte with Bennett.
During lulls in the seemingly interminable interview periods, the UVa players entertained reporters with imitations of Arnold Schwarzenegger (Scott) and Al Pacino doing Tony Montana (Farrakhan). When they talked basketball, though, the joking stopped.
Asked if people were underestimating Virginia, Scott nodded.
“They’re thinking, ‘Sylven’s gone, one of the best scorers in the league, and they’ve got seven freshmen,’ ” Scott said.
“Of course they’re underestimating us. Which is great. It means we have nothing to lose. They don’t know what I have done individually to get better. They don’t know what we have done as a team to get better. We’re just waiting to show everybody.”
Scott averaged 12 points and 7.2 rebounds last season, which makes him UVa’s top returning player in each category.
Farrakhan averaged 6.1 points and 2 assists and started 10 games. He’s an exceptional athlete — witness his SportsCenter-worthy dunk against N.C. State last season — and at times an accurate 3-point shooter. But he’s never been a full-time starter at UVa.
“Sometimes when you’re not getting opportunities to play, you think, ‘I gotta get a home run every moment I’m out there,’ ” Bennett said. “And he doesn’t need to do that at all. He has things to offer us that will help us, and he’ll need to be that way to lead the younger guys.”
Farrakhan said he’s working on “letting the game come to me. If my shot’s there, take it. If not, pass. If there’s an opportunity to go to the basket, go there. It comes a little easier once I’ve seen it for a couple of years, just being able to read and react better now.
“Personally, I’ve shown spurts of being a good guard in this league. The big thing with me was just consistency, because I have games where I play really well and then a game where I play OK and then a game where I wouldn’t play. But this year is going to be totally different for me.”
Evans started 11 games last season. He has yet to establish himself as a scoring threat at this level, but the 5-11 Evans is the Cavaliers’ best on-the-ball defender. Just ask Baron, who’s matched against Evans in practice most of the time.
“Jontel was out for a couple practices [recently] — he’s back now — and Billy said, ‘Wow, that’s a different feeling’ without Jontel just clawing and bulldogging him,” Bennett said.
“I think whoever Jontel guards, it makes them better, because he forces you to be so good with the ball, and that’s such a strength of his. I remember playing against Muggsy Bogues every day in practice [with the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets] and how much of a better ballhandler that made me.
“As a freshman, [Baron] hasn’t experienced anything like that. As far as that one-on-one matchup, I think that will only help Billy, and I’ve seen him already adjust to it a little bit.”
The 6-2 Baron, the younger of Rhode Island coach Jim Baron’s two sons, does not have Evans’ quickness — few players do — but compensates in other ways.
“He’s got good size,” Bennett said. “He’s a coach’s son, obviously. Very competitive. He’s very savvy. He can shoot the ball. He’s just one of those guys that doesn’t make a ton of mistakes but makes you pay. I’ve seen him with his great range shoot the ball, and again he has a natural feel for the game.”
Scott and Farrakhan, asked countless times about UVa’s freshmen, seemed sincerely excited about the newcomers.
“They’re definitely unselfish guys, and they definitely work very hard,” Farrakhan said. “We have a talented group that works hard, and they really share the ball.”
After he arrived at UVa from Washington State last year, Bennett successfully retained the two recruits, Evans and Tristan Spurlock, who had signed to play for his predecessor, Dave Leitao. (Spurlock transferred to Central Florida after the 2009-10 season). This, though, is Bennett’s first true recruiting class at Virginia. Still, Farrakhan said, Bennett isn’t giving the freshmen preferential treatment.
“We’re all his guys,” Farrakhan said. “I know he’s happy that he got his recruiting class in there, but he’s definitely accepted [the holdovers] with open arms, and we accepted him as well. It’s just one big family now.”
Bennett posed a question Wednesday, the answer to which may determine if the ‘Hoos, who tied for ninth in the ACC last year, exceed expectations in his second season.
“Can the young players handle the rigors?” Bennett said. “If they can, and we have some stability from our returners, I think there’s a chance for us to be very solid. But that’s a big if. We’ll have to see.”
Bennett and the ACC’s other head coaches met at 6:45 a.m. Wednesday to begin a long day of talking. The coaches split their time between ESPNU’s studio in Charlotte and the hotel that hosted the ACC event.
By 3 p.m., participants were fading.
“I think I’m out of questions,” Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Paul Woody told Bennett at one point.
“I think I’m out of answers,” Bennett said. “Perfect.”