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By Jeff White
jwhite@virginia.edu

CHARLOTTESVILLE — At practice Monday, a smiling Mike Scott encouraged teammates, traded one-liners with coaches and athletic trainers, and exchanged pleasantries with guests at John Paul Jones Arena.

In the days that followed his latest injury, his mood was not always so upbeat. But Scott is at peace with the fact that his fourth season at UVa has ended prematurely, and he looks forward to returning as a fifth-year senior in 2011-12.

“I wasn’t as happy when I first learned this operation had to happen,” Scott said after practice, “but I just sat down with my dad and Coach Bennett and talked about what was best for my future, and the operation was the best [option].”

Scott, a 6-8, 242-pound power forward from Chesapeake, had arthroscopic surgery Dec. 16 to remove loose pieces of cartilage from his left ankle. Scott recovered quickly — he experienced no pain, and his ankle did not swell — and played Dec. 22 against Seattle, totaling 12 points and 8 rebounds.

“I felt good,” Scott said Monday.

Then came the break for Christmas, throughout which, Scott said, his ankle gave him no problems. But when the Cavaliers reconvened Dec. 27, his ankle locked up on him during a defensive drill a few minutes into practice. When the problem persisted, Scott underwent another MRI, and it revealed more damage.

So Scott, who hasn’t played since the Seattle game, will have a second operation to remove impinging bone spurs and clean up more cartilage, UVa announced Monday. He’ll miss the rest of the season while rehabbing.

Virginia will play at least 31 games this season. Because Scott will have appeared in only 10 of them, UVa is confident he will meet NCAA requirements for a hardship waiver that would allow him to return next season.

Scott turns 23 this summer, and he joked on his Twitter page Monday evening that he will be a man among boys — literally — next season. He’s likely to push his graduation date back to December.

Before getting hurt this season, Scott led UVa to road victories over then-No. 15 Minnesota and Virginia Tech and established himself as an all-ACC candidate. His averages of 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds lead the team, and during one stretch he became the first Cavalier since 7-4 Ralph Sampson in 1983 to post five straight double-doubles.

“I know it’s hard,” Tony Bennett said Monday morning on the ACC coaches’ teleconference. “It’s killing Mike, because he was playing well.”

Scott is one of UVa’s captains, along with fellow seniors Mustapha Farrakhan and Will Sherrill. Though he can’t play, Scott said, he can still “be a leader and continue to do what I was doing these past couple games, trying to uplift my teammates and be a vocal leader.”

This surgery is expected to be sideline Scott for three or four months. It will be “more aggressive” than the first operation, Bennett said, which “is probably what’s needed to ensure him to go full bore and not have [a situation] where he’s going to be out and in. That’s kind of what led to it. We were hoping the [first] surgery would help it quiet down and feel good. For him to be able to go and play long-range, that wasn’t the case.”

And so the Wahoos (1-1 ACC, 10-6 overall) move forward with only four post players, one of whom, the 6-9 Sherrill, has yet to fully recover from the fractured right fibula he suffered Nov. 29 at Minnesota.

The other big men are 7-0 junior Assane Sene, who grabbed 11 rebounds Saturday against North Carolina, and 6-8 freshmen Akil Mitchell and Will Regan. (Another post player, 6-9 freshman James Johnson, will continue to redshirt, Bennett said Monday.)

“We’ve got, certainly, some challenges there,” Bennett said, “but there’s some opportunities out there.”

UVa, which visits defending NCAA champion Duke on Saturday, is coming off a 62-56 loss to the ACC’s other perennial power. Against a tall, athletic Carolina team, the Cavaliers led much of the way before fading late, in part because in Scott’s absence they lacked a capable low-post scorer.

Scott is convinced that his decision to have a season-ending operation was wise. He knows that in all likelihood he would not have been able to finish the season had he tried to play through the injury. That doesn’t mean the decision was easy.

“I didn’t want to make it seem like I was giving up on my teammates this season, but I just had to really sit down,” Scott said. “I kept having change of hearts. I wanted to play. Even watching the UNC game, I wanted to play so bad.”

His coaches, Scott said, didn’t pressure him either way.

“They just want me to be healthy and be successful, whichever route I went,” Scott said. “Especially Coach Bennett. Whichever route I took, he was going to stand by me.”

In 2009-10, the Cavaliers’ first season under Bennett, they went 15-16. With a healthy Scott, UVa almost certainly would have surpassed that victory total this season.

“It’s tough news with Mike,” Bennett said. “We feel like he was really playing well and having a good year and things were rounding into shape.”

With Scott out, Bennett may occasionally use lineups that include four perimeter players. But there will be opportunities, too, for Mitchell (2.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and Regan (1.5 ppg, 1.1 rpg).

The first-year big men are being thrust into roles that weren’t “planned on,” Bennett said, “but now we know this is where we’re at, so we’ve got to make the most of it, and I hope this will be really helpful for those guys in their future development for our program.”

Bennett’s focus is on the present, on trying to make the ‘Hoos as competitive as possible this season. Still, he acknowledged that, with Scott back, Virginia’s prospects for 2011-12 would look bright.

Assuming Scott is granted a fifth year, the only players who will exhaust their eligibility this season are Farrakhan and Sherrill. Among the many others expected back next season are swingman Joe Harris and guards KT Harrell, Jontel Evans and Sammy Zeglinski.

“We’ll be experienced, because all our freshmen definitely have played [this season], besides James,” Scott said. “But I know James is waiting to be unleashed. He’s a beast.”

Before coming to UVa, Bennett spent three seasons as Washington State’s head coach. Until this year, he never had lost a player as productive as Scott to a season-ending injury.

Given that, Bennett said, “I guess I can’t tell you how I handled it. We’re going to find out. For this year, this is a blow. You adjust, and you try to find the best ways for your team to perform.”

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