By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For at least the near future, UVa basketball fans aren’t likely to see much of all-ACC candidate Mike Scott on the court, which means they can expect to see more of Will Regan and Akil Mitchell.
The extent of Scott’s latest ankle injury has yet to be determined, and he’s doubtful for Virginia’s game with LSU at John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers (8-5) host the Tigers (8-6) at 5:30 p.m. Sunday.
Scott, a 6-8, 242-pound senior, leads UVa in scoring (15.9 ppg) and rebounding (10.2). His absence leaves second-year coach Tony Bennett with four frontcourt players: 6-9 senior Will Sherrill, 7-0 junior Assane Sene and 6-8 freshmen Regan and Mitchell. (Another big man, 6-9 freshman James Johnson, is redshirting and has yet to play this season).
Though neither Mitchell (131 minutes) nor Regan (86) has played much this season, that figures to change.
Mitchell remains raw offensively, but he’s an exceptional athlete who has averaged 4.8 rebounds in his past four games.
Regan is not the defender or rebounder that Mitchell is, but he’s more polished on offense. In UVa’s 60-47 loss to Iowa State on Friday night, a game that Scott sat out, Regan scored 7 points and played 18 minutes, both career highs. He made 3 of 4 shots from the floor and impressed with his repertoire of post moves.
“Offensively, he has a nice feel,” Bennett said afterward at JPJ. “He has a little bit of composure. He has a good pace to himself. He’s got to keep working, as all the young guys do, on the defensive end … [and] on the glass and positioning and all that. But he practiced well. He knocked down a shot and had a nice post move or two, and did some nice things. I’ll look at that as a positive.”
Technically, Regan and Mitchell are power forwards. But for a stretch of the second half Friday, they were on the court together, along with swingman Joe Harris, shooting guard KT Harrell and point guard Billy Baron.
“I think there was a media timeout,” Regan said, “and I looked around and saw all five of us sitting there. It just kind of put things into perspective. Especially when there’s five freshmen out there, we gotta work that much harder. We don’t have the older leadership out there.
“But at the same time, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s not really inexperienced players out there any more. We all have a little bit of experience, so we can’t really rely just on older guys to direct us. We all gotta find our way sooner or later.”
Bennett knows that playing five freshmen at once is rarely a formula for success, but with the game slipping away from the Wahoos, he concluded that he had nothing to lose.
“I just said, ‘Let’s throw them in there and see how they respond,’ ” Bennett told reporters.
Other than Regan, none of the first-year players shot 50 percent or better from the floor against the Cyclones (12-2). Harrell (4 for 9) came closest, and he led the ‘Hoos with 9 points. Harris was 2 for 10, Baron was 1 for 6, and Mitchell was 0 for 3.
Even so, Bennett liked the freshmen’s effort.
“I just put them in,” he said, “and when they were out there I noticed it, and they hit a couple shots and did some things. But you’re in a situation, those guys have to get experience, and there’s not all that much separation now when you look at our roster …. There’s opportunities for everybody, and when you’re struggling like that, you’re searching, you’re looking for answers, you never give up, but you’re trying to see what can happen.”
When they got out on the court, Baron said, he pulled his classmates together “and told them, ‘Hey, five first-years, let’s go get it. We talked about this in the summer. We’re down 17, let’s try and crack this thing down.’
“It was a good learning experience. When you’re losing, you find out who you really are.”
Spoken like a coach’s son. His father, Jim Baron, runs the program at Atlantic 10 power Rhode Island, so Billy undoubtedly has heard messages similar to the one Bennett delivered after the game Friday night.
“The young guys, I think their attitude’s good,” Bennett said at his press conference. “But I said, ‘Now is when it’s tested. When it gets hard like this, will you stay the course, and will you keep fighting? It’s easy when it’s going well. It’s a little more challenging when the adversity sets in.’ “
Bennett’s first team at UVa finished 15-16. His second, with Scott in the lineup, beat such foes as Minnesota and Virginia Tech, both on the road, and seemed headed for a winning season. Their prospects for 2010-11 no longer look as bright.
“I’ve been here before as a coach, and it’s hard,” Bennett said. “It’s painful when you’re trying to build something, and when you have some challenges in front of you that you didn’t think were going to happen, it makes it more challenging. But you know there’s only one way to go, and the kids have responded with their effort and their intensity.”
Baron said: “We’re frustrated now, but getting more frustrated is not going to solve any problems. We gotta build confidence, not only in ourselves but in each other.”
LSU has issues of its own. The Tigers, whose roster includes no seniors, have dropped three of their past four games.
“First of all, for me 2010 has been a grind, so I am looking to the new year,” third-year coach Trent Johnson told reporters Thursday. “2011 has to be better than 2010.”
LSU starts two freshmen, one sophomore and two juniors. Those freshmen — 5-9 point guard Andre Stringer (14.4 ppg) and 6-6 swingman Ralston Turner (13.9) — are the team’s top two scorers, and both are threats from 3-point range. Turner has made 33 treys and Stringer 32 this season.
Johnson and Bennett know each other from the Pac-10. Johnson went 80-47 in four seasons as Stanford’s coach. Bennett posted a 69-33 record in three seasons at Washington State, where he succeeded his father, Dick.
Bennett’s first two seasons as head coach overlapped with Johnson’s final two with the Cardinal. Johnson’s teams went 4-1 against the younger Bennett’s during those seasons.
“Tony is the ultimate of what this thing is about for me in college basketball,” Johnson said. “Obviously we know the impact his dad had on this game.”
In their current gigs, Johnson said, he and Bennett “are in very similar situations. He has inherited a program and is making some changes. There has been some inconsistency in his team’s play and some impatience from some people, but there is no secret to it. It is going to get done, and it is going to get done right.”