By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He returned to the basketball court ahead of schedule, helping UVa knock off arch-rival Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Dec. 5, less than seven weeks after having a knee operation that was anything but routine.
By the time the calendar flipped to 2011, Sammy Zeglinski hoped, the soreness in his left knee would be gone, his fitness level would be excellent, and his shot would be dropping regularly. If not 100 percent, he’d at least be close to it.
“I was hoping it would just kind of click for me,” Zeglinski said after practice the other day. “Yeah, it was more of a struggle than I expected, but now I think going into the ACC season I should be all right.
“It’s been tough, battling with my knee and just trying to get my legs back and being able to be in game shape, just everything all together. But I’m starting to come on a little bit stronger now. My knee feels better every day.”
Zeglinski, who can play both guard positions, can’t return to form fast enough for Virginia, which plays its second ACC game Saturday at sold-out John Paul Jones Arena. At noon, UVa (10-5) hosts the North Carolina Tar Heels (10-4), who have yet to play a conference game.
“We need to get Sammy back full, because he’s been there,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said. “He’s experienced, and certainly when he’s healthy he helps this team, because he’s a complete guard that can make some outside shots, put it on the floor, pass.”
As a redshirt sophomore in 2009-10, the 6-1, 185-pound Zeglinski led the Wahoos in 3-pointers made (61), assists (80) and steals (38). He also proved to be surprisingly productive on the backboards, coming away with an average of 3.8 rebounds per game.
“And that’s important for us,” Bennett said, especially with 6-8 senior Mike Scott sidelined by an ankle injury.
“Without Mike, against these teams we’re playing, our guards are going to have to come back and rebound with everything they’ve got,” Bennett said, “and that’s a strength of Sammy’s that helps us out. That means a lot for us.
“You look at his size and say, ‘He helps you with rebounding? How’s that?’ But he does.”
During most of his time at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, Zeglinski played football, basketball and baseball, moving from sport to sport with no significant injuries.
“I thought I could do everything,” Sammy said with a smile.
He soon learned otherwise at UVa. During the 2007-08 season, Zeglinski had two operations on his right ankle and ultimately received a hardship waiver from the NCAA.
He stayed healthy as a redshirt freshman, but Zeglinski played much of the 2009-10 season with an injured left hip that required surgery last April. That kept him out of the team’s offseason workouts. Then came the cartilage damage in his left knee, an injury that rendered him a spectator at preseason practices and for the Cavaliers’ first seven games of 2010-11.
Small wonder, then, that Zeglinski has struggled to regain his shooting touch since his return. He’s 13 for 46 from the floor, including 9 for 35 from beyond the 3-point arc, in his eight games.
“Those reps that you get in the summer and before the games, all that practice time, definitely pay off in the games,” Zeglinski said. “So I just had to jump-start it later than everyone else. But now I feel like I’m getting my legs back.”
Extra sessions with athletic trainer Ethan Saliba and strength-and-conditioning coach Mike Curtis are strengthening his hip and his knee, Zeglinski said. Extra shooting after practice is helping his shot.
In Virginia’s most recent game, an 84-63 win over Howard, Zeglinski went 2 for 4 from 3-point range. That was only the second time this season he’s shot at least 50 percent from beyond the arc.
“It’s nice to see the ball go in the net,” Zeglinski said, “but I know that’s going to come. I’m not really worried about my shot, as long as I’m doing the other things to help the team win, just playing good defense and sharing the ball and making the extra pass.”
His career high for 3-pointers made in an ACC game? Five. Zeglinski did that last season in Chapel Hill, where UVa whipped Roy Williams’ Heels 75-60.
“I’m sure Coach Williams is reminding them of that game and how we came in there and beat them pretty handily,” Zeglinski said. “We’ll be ready to play. They’ll be ready as well. It’s going to be a good game.”
With Scott out, it’s a game in which UVa has an exceptionally small margin for error, especially in the frontcourt. UNC’s starters include 7-0 Tyler Zeller, 6-10 John Henson and 6-8 Harrison Barnes, former McDonald’s All-Americans who have combined for more than 22 rebounds a game this season.
The Heels’ rebounding prowess might be Bennett’s biggest concern.
“They get after the offensive glass,” he said Friday. “Certainly their transition game. That goes without saying when you play Carolina. But their ability to rebound missed shots, and their length, is impressive. They have size and talent, and they’re good.”
Scott is averaging a team-high 10.2 rebounds. A distant second, at 3.8 per game, is 6-9 senior Will Sherrill, who fractured his right fibula Nov. 29 at Minnesota.
After missing five games, Sherrill returned to the lineup Dec. 30, but has had a couple of setbacks since then. How much he’ll be able to play against Carolina is uncertain.
“I just listen to him and watch him and see how he’s doing,” Bennett said. “He’s telling me he’s getting, little by little, better and stronger in his leg, so hopefully he’ll be able to play more and do more. His smarts and his experience are good, but he’s got to be able to move to help us.”