By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Two nights after beating an opponent from the Southeastern Conference, the UVa men’s basketball team hosts a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference foe at John Paul Jones Arena.
That’s a step down in competition for the Cavaliers, but their recent struggles against Norfolk State and Seattle proved that they can take no game for granted this season.
In its final non-conference game, Virginia (9-5) hosts Howard (2-10) at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
“We’re a team that has to really be ready, no matter who we’re playing,” Tony Bennett said Monday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference.
“We’ve struggled as of late, and whether it’s a power conference or not a power conference, teams can compete with us if we’re not locked in. And certainly being a quick turnaround, we’ll have to handle some different things. [Howard will] be fired up to come into here, and we’ll have to meet that and see if we can put another solid performance together, as we did last night.”
The Wahoos ended a two-game losing streak Sunday with a 64-50 victory over LSU at John Paul Jones Arena.
“We haven’t been playing the way we usually play, and just to get a win, it feels pretty good,” said freshman guard KT Harrell, who led all scorers with 15 points.
Led by sophomore point guard Jontel Evans, Virginia played inspired defense throughout, which pleased Bennett immensely. The ‘Hoos hit some shots, too, for the first time in what seemed like ages, and that pleased the crowd of 10,049 at JPJ.
In their previous two games — losses to Seattle and Iowa State — the Cavaliers were a combined 5 for 44 from 3-point range. They were 6 for 19 against LSU (8-7).
“We still missed a lot of shots, but it was much better,” Bennett said. “We got a ways to go, but that was a nice performance, and the kids kind of all chipped in.”
Evans helped limit Tigers point guard Andre Stringer to 6 points, 8 fewer than his team-leading average. Evans, who had 4 rebounds and 3 steals, had a major impact at the offensive end, too, with 8 points and a game-high 6 assists.
Rarely, if ever, in his college career had Evans looked so assertive with the ball.
“The last two games I felt like I was timid out there, on both ends,” he said. “Tonight I just wanted to be aggressive on both ends of the floor, especially the offensive end. Because you know a lot of guys play off of me, so I have to pick my spots. If they don’t come out, I drive, and if it’s there, I lay it up. And if they commit when I drive, I just kick it out to my shooters.”
For the second straight game, UVa played without its leading scorer and rebounder, Mike Scott, and the 6-8, 242-pound senior isn’t expected back soon. A recent MRI revealed more damage in Scott’s left ankle, on which he had arthroscopic surgery Dec. 16, and another operation may be necessary.
If Scott can’t return this season, UVa might apply for a hardship waiver from the NCAA that would allow him to compete as a fifth-year senior in 2011-12.
“It has been talked about briefly,” Bennett said Monday, “but that’s only if he can’t get back to playing … at a high level or 100 percent.”
With Scott, Bennett’s frontcourt options consist of 7-0 junior Assane Sene, 6-9 senior Will Sherrill and 6-8 freshmen Will Regan and Akil Mitchell. (Another big man, 6-9 freshman James Johnson, is redshirting.)
All contributed against LSU. Sherrill buried two 3-pointers in the final four minutes to help quell the Tigers’ rally, and he also grabbed 5 rebounds in his second game back from a fractured right fibula. Sene didn’t score but had a team-high 6 rebounds in only 19 minutes. Regan had 4 points, 4 rebounds and 2 blocks in 19 minutes off the bench. Mitchell played 19 minutes, too, and scored a career-high 9 points.
Equally impressive to Bennett was Mitchell’s heady defense on LSU’s ball screens above the 3-point arc.
Mitchell remains raw offensively, and Bennett said he’s told him to “start with being a great defender, rebound the basketball, run the floor … He knows right now he’s got to keep developing his outside shot and keep working on that. But he can’t play handcuffed [on offense], where he can’t ever look at the basket. He has to be a threat.”
The key for him, Mitchell said, is “just playing with confidence and being myself, honestly. I don’t have to be Mike or anybody else. I’m just giving them what I have, and it’s working for me so far.”
On the perimeter, freshman swingman Joe Harris made two treys, giving hope that he’s starting to emerge from a prolonged shooting slump. Senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan has been misfiring, too, and he came off the bench Sunday night after starting the previous five games.
The LSU game did not begin auspiciously for Farrakhan — he went 0 for 2 and failed to score before intermission — but he finished with 11 points and provided invaluable leadership on the court.
“I told them before [the game], ‘All you guys have to be ready. Everybody’s going to have opportunities to play,’ ” Bennett said, “and I thought Mu responded well after a rough start.
“He’s our one senior on the perimeter who’s been in some situations. So I just kept saying, ‘Lead us, lead us. You’ve got to be at least steady in talking to these guys,’ and he calmed us down and made some better decisions in the second half.”
Farrakhan said: “It didn’t start off too well for me, but I just stayed positive, stayed with my team, just kept making the proper play when I needed to.”
Point guard Billy Baron didn’t get any time against LSU. Four of Virginia’s other freshmen, however, played at least 19 minutes apiece.
“We’ve got a lot of freshmen and inexperienced guys that are playing big roles,” Bennett said Monday. “That’s healthy for the future of the program and provides some great challenges [in the present] … It’s an opportunity that not a lot of young players would get. Whether they’re ready or not, they’re going to get those opportunities.
“I love their attitude and their unselfishness and kind of the character and the heart that they’re possessing. And they’re willing to learn. They’re humble guys. They know they’ve got a ways to go, and I like that about our whole team.”
The Howard game will be the Cavaliers’ seventh straight at JPJ. The homestand concludes Saturday afternoon when UVa (1-0 in conference play) entertains ACC rival North Carolina.
“I hope it helps,” Bennett said of the victory over LSU. “We just keep preparing. I say, ‘Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. Just keep plugging and knowing that we’ve got to be ready against everyone we play.’ “