By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The six freshmen in Tony Bennett’s program who are on scholarship can be split into groups of three: perimeter players K.T. Harrell, Joe Harris and Billy Baron on one side, big men Will Regan, James Johnson and Akil Mitchell on the other.

That Harrell, Harris and Baron will play this season is certain. With junior Sammy Zeglinski recovering from knee surgery, UVa has only five healthy perimeter players — the freshmen plus sophomore Jontel Evans and senior Mustapha Farrakhan — and all will be part of the rotation Friday night in the opener against William and Mary.

“That’s set,” Bennett said on a teleconference Tuesday morning.

What the Cavaliers’ second-year men’s basketball coach has not decided is how best to proceed with his frontcourt, where Bennett’s options are Regan, Johnson and Mitchell, junior Assane Sene and seniors Mike Scott and Will Sherrill.

Redshirting one of the freshmen is a possibility the coaching staff will discuss again after practice Thursday.

“We have some decisions to make,” Bennett said. “We really do. Obviously not on the perimeter, but we’ve got to really think about this.”

The 7-0 Sene and the 6-9 Johnson are the only true centers in the group, but there’s little difference between power forward and center in Bennett’s offense.

There are 80 minutes per game to be split among UVa’s big men. The 6-8, 242-pound Scott is the team’s top returning rebounder and scorer. If he can avoid foul trouble, Scott figures to play at least 30 minutes per game, which would leave approximately 50 for the others.

Sene, who has started 21 games in his college career, has been Virginia’s most improved player this fall. The 6-9 Sherrill started seven games in 2009-10 and figures to be in the rotation again this season. Which means Virginia’s coaching staff must determine if redshirting one of the first-year big men makes sense.

“There are some hard decisions to make,” Bennett said, “but we’ll certainly do what’s best for the player [and] what’s best for the team, and for the long haul. I think you’ve always got to look at what it sets up to be, not just in a one-year period but over the course of a few years how it will benefit everybody involved.”

Holding out a first-year player this season would make the classes more balanced in 2011-12. Bennett’s 12 scholarship players this season consist of three seniors (Scott, Sherrill and Farrakhan), two juniors (Sene and Zeglinski), one sophomore (Evans) and the six freshmen.

At least three recruits are expected to join the program as freshmen next season.

Virginia, which finished 15-16 in 2009-10, opens against a William and Mary team that went 22-11 and beat such teams as Wake Forest, Maryland, Richmond and VCU last season.

The ‘Hoos host the Tribe at 7 p.m. Friday at John Paul Jones Arena. That’s where UVa, in an exhibition game this past weekend, whipped Division III Roanoke College 82-50.

The exhibition came a week after a closed scrimmage in which Virginia faced Marquette in Milwaukee. The preseason matchups revealed his first-year players’ defensive deficiencies, Bennett said.

“They’re a willing group,” he said, “but I think it’s such a team defense that when there’s a breakdown it really shows. When we had our scrimmage against Marquette and then went against Roanoke, you see some things. You get a feel. It was the first time a lot of them have gone against the quickness or the athleticism [found in college hoops], or teams that will really stretch you out, so you see some challenges. But they’re better than they were at the start of practice.

“I think it’s really a process through the daily repetition. There’s so many aspects to it: on the ball, then your vision off the ball, then rebounding. The things I’ve noticed with the young guys is that in high school you come in and you know you’ve got to work hard on the ball, and that can be a challenge, but you can kind of relax a little more off the ball. And [at this level] when they relax or get out of position, usually they get taken advantage of or exposed, and that’s new to them.”

Among ACC teams, UVa ranked last in field-goal percentage defense and in 3-point percentage defense in 2009-10. That was the Cavaliers’ first season in Bennett’s Pack-Line defense, and the players struggled to master its principles.

In the ACC tournament, though, Virginia held Boston College to 41.7-percent accuracy from the floor and eventual NCAA champion Duke to 38.2-percent shooting.

The defense has not yet returned to that level, Bennett said, and “it’d be hard to be there with the newcomers. I think what helps is, the guys that have been in the program, the returners, there’s no question they’re at a different place.”

“The new guys are, effort-wise, getting there, but there’s just things you get through repetition and through time and through maturity. You’re not thinking as much and reacting. You become more of a defense that anticipates and is really team-oriented. You see the difference in the two. So the guys who’ve returned are a step ahead, and the newer guys are figuring it out.”

The team’s best on-the-ball defender is Evans, and he’s likely to start at point guard against William and Mary, with Baron in reserve. With Zeglinski out, Farrakhan is the third option at the point.

“I think Jontel has made some strides, I really do, from last year,” Bennett said. “He did a nice job in our Marquette scrimmage. You know he’s very good on the ball defensively, he can really set your defense, and I think he’s getting better and better. I like what I’m seeing in him, and when he lets the game come and attacks when he’s got opportunities, he really helps us.”

Baron, unlike Evans, is an outstanding outside shooter but will “have to continue to adjust playing against the speed and the quickness that he’ll see,” Bennett said.

“Kind of a two-headed monster, I guess, is what you’re looking at right now. And they both provide something different. But you can see the inexperience more in Billy than even Jontel, and that’s to be expected.”

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