By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Since the start of the season, the first-year players on Tony Bennett’s basketball team have traveled to Palo Alto, Calif., to Maui, Hawaii, and, most recently, to Minneapolis.
Now they get to experience Blacksburg, home of UVa’s most bitter ACC rival, Virginia Tech. Bennett’s veterans have been briefing the youngsters on what to expect at Cassell Coliseum.
In the conference opener for both teams, the Hokies (4-3) host the Cavaliers (4-3) at 6 p.m. Sunday. This will be the Wahoos’ sixth straight game away from John Paul Jones Arena.
“I’ve heard a couple things,” UVa freshman Will Regan said after practice Friday evening, “that it’s a hostile crowd, that playing at Minnesota won’t be much like playing at Virginia Tech, with the intensity of the crowd. It’s going to be a learning experience for sure, and you’ve got to be ready.”
UVa’s roster includes six scholarship freshmen, one of whom, 6-9 center James Johnson is redshirting. Two of Johnson’s classmates, swingman Joe Harris and shooting guard K.T. Harrell, have been starting, and another newcomer, point guard Billy Baron, has averaged about 18 minutes a game off the bench.
Regan and Akil Mitchell, both 6-8 forwards, round out the class. If Will Sherrill were healthy, neither Mitchell nor Regan would be likely to play a prominent role in the first of Virginia’s two regular-season clashes with Virginia Tech. One or both might do so now.
Sherrill, a 6-9 senior, fractured his right fibula Monday night in UVa’s upset of 15th-ranked Minnesota in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Assane Sene, a 7-foot junior, is expected to replace Sherrill in the starting lineup. Mitchell and Regan are the Cavaliers’ other frontcourt options. Mitchell has appeared in five games (and scored 7 points) this season. Regan has scored 8 points in six games.
“Obviously it’s going to open up a little bit of opportunity for us, and we both want to make the most of it,” Regan said. “So we’ve talked about that, trying to make the most of the opportunity and help the team. That’s the big thing, just to help the team.”
Sherrill has made 12 of 22 shots from beyond the arc this season, and neither Mitchell nor Regan figures to fill that void. Sherrill’s absence will make it easier for the Hokies to collapse on 6-8 senior Mike Scott, UVa’s best low-post threat.
“Will really could stretch the defense,” Bennett said. “If teams sat on Mike, Will could spot up, and he was really a 3-ball threat that took a little of the pressure off Mike.”
The Hokies’ leading scorer, senior guard Malcolm Delaney, is coming off a miserable shooting performance, and that concerns Bennett, too. In Tech’s loss to visiting Purdue on Wednesday night, Delaney went 2 for 18 from the floor, and Bennett remembers well what happened when UVa met Stanford last month.
In the Cardinal’s previous game, junior guard Jeremy Green had gone 1 for 7 and scored 2 points. Against UVa, Green hit 5 of 9 shots from beyond the arc and scored 21 points in Stanford’s 81-60 romp.
“You know [Delaney is] going to come out and be aggressive,” Bennett said, “and you’ve just got to try to meet that, whether he’s had a good game or a bad game, and make him try to earn his shots. Make him make tough shots and not give him the easy ones that get him going, or put him on the line a lot.”
Virginia’s backcourt may get a boost Sunday night. Junior guard Sammy Zeglinski, who has yet to play this season, returned to practiced Wednesday and showed remarkably little rust the rest of the week.
Zeglinski started 29 games last season and, at 8.9 points per game, was UVa’s third-leading scorer. He had hip surgery after the season and then another operation Oct. 19 in which cartilage damage in his left knee was repaired.
“I think he feels like he’s about 80 percent, 85 percent,” Bennett said Friday night. “The big thing is, when he practices, how his knee responds the next day. He’s had a little bit of soreness and minimal swelling, so he’s getting closer. If he did play, it would certainly be limited minutes at best. We just have to wait and see. But I’m encouraged by him [after such a long layoff] doing a lot of stuff his first three practices back. But we don’t want to rush it.”
In the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, no result was more surprising than the Cavaliers’ 87-79 win over the previously unbeaten Golden Gophers. Harris scored a game-high 24 points, and senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan added a career-best 23 for the ‘Hoos. Scott, with 17 points and 12 rebounds, recorded his fourth double-double of the season.
At 11.7 ppg, Harris is the Cavaliers’ second-leading scorer. He’s from Chelan, Wash., where he attended one of the smaller high schools in that state.
“I’ve liked what I’ve seen in Joe,” Bennett said. “If you would have gone to one of his high school games last year and seen the competition that he played against, you’d probably be even more impressed. He’s adjusted quickly and responded well.
“Joe’s doing a nice job, and I’m happy to see him in those settings [on the road] show a level of confidence and poise that seems to be beyond his years … I think he’ll have a nice career here.”
Farrakhan’s tour de force, meanwhile, came five nights after he went scoreless in UVa’s final game at the Maui Invitational, a 70-58 loss to Wichita State. He may not torch Tech the way he did Minnesota, but Farrakhan can still be effective Sunday night, Bennett said.
“I talk to our younger players about that all the time: Don’t be defined by your shooting performance or your first couple shots,” Bennett said. “I remember that, if I made a couple shots, I was good in high school, even early in my college career … ‘I’m going for 20 or 30 tonight.’
“You have to have more to your game. We need soundness with the ball, good decisisions, defense, all that a guy like Mu has to offer. He can’t just be defined if the ball’s going in the basket. He has to impact the game in a lot of ways.”
Bennett, who went 5-2 against arch-rival Washington as Washington State’s head coach, is 0-2 against the Hokies since taking over at UVa. In the teams’ first meeting last season, Tech forced overtime with a dramatic comeback and won 76-71 at JPJ. About two weeks later, the Hokies rallied late again and beat the ‘Hoos 61-55 at Cassell Coliseum.
Tech returned every starter from its 2009-10 team. Many of the players who’ll be on the court for UVa on Sunday night were in high school or prep school last season, and that makes it more difficult for Bennett to predict what will unfold in Blacksburg.
Still, he said, “every time we play it’s a huge opportunity for us. Every game that we have success in, it’s important. So this is a significant year for us in this rebuilding phase to establish things, and that’s the message we keep telling our young men: Just be ready. You don’t know when a team’s going to be on their game, off their game, what’s going to happen. And when you go about it the right way, we hopefully can be competitive and have a chance, and at least they proved that to themselves in this last game [against Minnesota].”
Virginia played its first two games at home, beating William and Mary and then USC Upstate. The Cavaliers’ long-awaited return to JPJ comes Tuesday night, against Radford.
The games away from Charlottesville included the 21-point loss to Stanford and an embarrassing 43-point loss to Washington. But there have been good moments, too, and Bennett believes the rugged early-season schedule will benefit his team.
“Experience is the best teacher,” he said. “We were a little rocky there, but I think we took a step in the right direction in terms of understanding how we have to play.”