By Jeff White
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Not until his senior year did Jerome Meyinsse, a 6-9 center, become a significant contributor for the UVa men’s basketball team.
Tony Bennett hopes the breakthrough comes sooner for Assane Sene, who’s heading into his third season in the Cavaliers’ program. But Bennett knows that big men often bloom later than perimeter players.
In his playing days, Bennett was a point guard, and as such he was expected “to be flawless,” Virginia’s second-year coach recalled Wednesday at ACC Operation Basketball.
Post players, by contrast, “get all the grace in the world,” Bennett said with a smile. That apparent double standard may have frustrated him as a player, but Bennett said he realizes that with big men “their development, their evolution comes at different stages.”
In 2008-09, Dave Leitao’s final season as Virginia’s coach, the 7-0 Sene averaged 2.5 points and 4.6 rebounds in about 17 minutes per game. His playing time — and his averages — dipped in 2009-10.
Sene, who started 16 games as a freshman, started five as a sophomore and averaged 1.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 12.6 minutes. Meyinsse gobbled up most of the minutes at center and by season’s end had become a force in the low post.
Meyinsse, who scored more than 9 points only twice in the Wahoos’ first 25 games, hit double figures in five of the final six.
And so Bennett exercises patience with Sene, a native of Senegal who played little organized basketball before coming to the United States in March 2007.
“You have to be that way with younger players, but I think with big guys especially,” Bennett said. “It would be great if he could keep taking the steps that it appears he’s shown, at least in practice. But that’s a start. That’s where you have to see it.”
Sene’s weight last season ranged from 225 to 228 pounds. He weighed in at 242 recently, and the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach, Mike Curtis, hopes to see Sene hit 245 before the season starts next month.
Strength, or lack thereof, has been an issue for Sene at UVa. So has his inability to cleanly catch the ball. To try to improve his hands, Sene has caught footballs thrown by team managers and worked on other drills.
“He’s catching the ball, he’s finishing through contact,” teammate Mike Scott said in Charlotte. “He’s dunking the ball. Assane has definitely improved. He’s gotten much stronger. He still needs to get stronger, but he’s a beast.”
Bennett might not go that far. Still, he likes what he sees from Sene.
“Assane’s done a good job in our first few practices,” Bennett said. “He’s gained some weight, and he’s worked hard on some of the areas he’s wanted to improve. Absolutely.”
Sene not only has progressed from this time last year, Bennett said, but from the end of last season.
“He’s just physically better and catching things better,” Bennett said. “Just real active. He’s always worked hard, he’s always actually been active, but I see an improvement in him, now that he’s an upperclassman.”
Senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan’s assessment of Sene?
“He’s definitely more athletic, stronger, and his hands have gotten better,” Farrakhan said Wednesday. “He’s just really making a conscious effort of being able to catch the ball and just getting into his move and slowing down a little bit and concentrating on what he has to do.”