Dec. 27, 2010

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — At one end of the court, assistant coach Jason Williford worked with big men Assane Sene, Will Regan, Akil Mitchell and James Johnson on their shooting.

At the other end, associate head coach Ritchie McKay ran perimeter players Mustapha Farrakhan, KT Harrell and Thomas Rogers through similar drills.

At midcourt, Tony Bennett took it all in Monday morning.

UVa’s head men’s basketball coach would have preferred, of course, to have had a full complement of players for his team’s first post-Christmas practice. But he knows that Mother Nature can wreak havoc on well-laid plans this time of year.

“I’m thankful we got seven guys here,” Bennett said.

The Cavaliers haven’t played since Wednesday night, when they lost 59-53 to unheralded Seattle University before a disbelieving crowd at John Paul Jones Arena.

After that stunning defeat, UVa’s players scattered for the holiday break. They were due back in town Sunday night, but winter storms made it impossible for many Cavaliers to get here as scheduled. Bennett advised them to take their time.

“Flights got canceled, and with the weather, roads were bad,” Bennett said. “Safety was the first thing, staying out of harm’s way.”

Missing at practice Monday morning were all three of Virginia’s point guards — Jontel Evans, Sammy Zeglinski and Billy Baron — as well as Will Sherrill, Joe Harris and Mike Scott.

That Regan, who’s from Buffalo, and Farrakhan, who’s from Chicago, made it back on time impressed Bennett, a Wisconsin native who’s lived through some hard winters in his 41 years.

“The people that grew up in the cold weather found a way,” Bennett said with a smile. “They’re resourceful. The guys who aren’t used to it labored.”

Evans and Scott are from the state’s Tidewater region, most parts of which got at least a foot of snow over the weekend.

“Obviously they’re not used to that,” Bennett said.

Zeglinski lives in Philadelphia, Sherrill in New York City, Harris in Washington state, and Baron in Rhode Island.

The Wahoos are scheduled to practice again Monday night, after Bennett’s weekly radio show, and he expects all his players to be back by then.

“Hopefully we’ll have a good, full team practice tonight once everybody arrives,” Bennett said.

The ‘Hoos (8-4) are entering a stretch in which they’ll play three games in six nights, all at JPJ, starting Thursday against Iowa State (11-2). The Cyclones’ associate head coach, T.J. Otzelberger, is one of Bennett’s close friends in the profession.

“Now we’ve got three days to prepare for an explosive team in Iowa State, so we’ll have to be purposeful and have three productive practices,” Bennett said.

The loss to Seattle still stings. Against an undersized team that came in with a 4-10 record, UVa shot 30.2 percent from the floor. Worse, Virginia allowed Seattle to hit 50 percent of its field-goal attempts. The Redhawks outrebounded the taller Cavaliers, 36-32.

“We left not on a great note,” Bennett said. “Didn’t play well and got outplayed, so now it’s time to look in the mirror. The last couple games we have not played well, and we have to say, ‘All right, let’s try to get it right.’ ”

The Cavaliers looked mentally and physically tired Wednesday night, but their challenge was no greater than that facing the Redhawks, Bennett noted.

“We were the home team,” he said. “They were the road team, and at this time of the year, everybody’s had finals and has traveled or played games. I don’t subscribe to [the theory] that, ‘Well, we were just worn out.’ Yeah, we had played three games in six days, but it’s a privilege on game night, and I just thought we looked certainly out of sync and didn’t play well.

“It wasn’t just that we shot it poorly. It was more than that. I thought as many points as they got in the paint, as many loose balls that they got to, indicated that we weren’t as hungry for that game as we needed to be.”

The Seattle game marked the return of UVa’s best player, Mike Scott, six days after he had arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle. The 6-8, 242-pound senior leads the ‘Hoos in scoring (15.9 ppg) and rebounding (10.2 per game), and he battled gamely Wednesday night, totaling 12 points and 8 boards in 31 minutes.

Still, Scott wasn’t as efficient as usual on offense, missing 4 of his 7 field-goal attempts. The missed practice time clearly affected him.

“Some of the shots I [missed], that had nothing to do with legs or ankle,” Scott said afterward. “That was just having to finish. So I could have made some more shots, got some more rebounds.”

Scott sat out two games with his ankle injury. He’s not the only player who has spent considerable time this season with Ethan Saliba, the team’s athletic trainer.

Zeglinski missed the first seven games while recovering from knee surgery. He started 29 games as a redshirt sophomore in 2009-10. Another player in UVa’s rotation, 6-9 senior forward Will Sherrill, has missed the past five games with a fractured right fibula.

All of which means Virginia has yet to play a game this season in which Bennett had every player available. That may change Thursday night. Sherrill hopes to play against Iowa State, and he would be a welcome addition to a team that desperately needs frontcourt production.

Sherrill is probably the Cavaliers’ best off-the-ball defender, and his ability to stretch the defense helps unclog the lane for Scott. Sherrill has made 12 of 22 (54.5 percent) attempts from 3-point range this season.

Given that the ‘Hoos were 2 for 20 from beyond the arc against Seattle, Sherrill can’t get back soon enough.

“You gotta be able to make some shots,” Bennett said.


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