By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Had he known in November that his frontcourt would sustain such damage as the season unfolded, UVa men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett might not have granted freshman James Johnson’s request to redshirt.
But Bennett said redshirting is an option he’ll continue to consider in his basketball program, no matter how short-handed it may have left him this season.
“It’s an individual thing based on the long range of your program,” Bennett said Monday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I mean, if you’re looking at trading James as a freshman for James as a fifth-year senior, you’d take that fifth year.”
Virginia entered the season with 12 scholarship players, including six who play power forward or center: seniors Mike Scott and Will Sherrill, junior Assane Sene and freshmen Johnson, Will Regan and Akil Mitchell.
With 80 minutes per game to divide at those two positions, Bennett figured to have trouble finding playing time for five big men, let alone six. So when the 6-9 Johnson approached the coaching staff and said he was interested in redshirting this season, Bennett supported the idea, believing it would pay long-term dividends for the program.
“We had still five guys for those two spots,” Bennett said, “so you feel like you’re OK. Then all of the sudden, Bang! Two guys take the bullet.”
In the second half of UVa’s Nov. 29 upset of then-No. 15 Minnesota, Sherrill fractured his right fibula. He didn’t play again until Dec. 30, and the 6-9 forward has yet to regain the form that earned him a starting job early in the season.
Sherrill re-injured his leg Feb. 5 at Miami and missed Virginia’s game at Florida State a week later. He might be able to play Wednesday night when UVa (3-7, 12-12) hosts fifth-ranked Duke (10-1, 23-2) in an ACC game at JPJ. The 6-8, 242-pound Scott, however, is definitely out. He had season-ending ankle surgery late last month.
Scott averaged 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds but appeared in only 10 games. Which means that for a good part of this season UVa has had only three post players: the 7-0 Sene, the 6-8 Mitchell and the 6-8 Regan, whom Bennett believes is not ready yet to make a significant contribution this season.
This is less than ideal, Bennett knows, but once the decision to redshirt Johnson was made, UVa’s coaches were determined to proceed as planned. Not until early January was it clear that Scott would be unable to play again in 2010-11, and the Wahoos were halfway through their schedule by then.
“You can always pull a guy off a redshirt,” Bennett said, “but you’ve got to be fair to him.”
With his frontcourt depleted, Bennett has been forced to get creative. Among other things, that’s meant playing 6-6 swingman Joe Harris, a freshman, at power forward for long stretches.
In ACC games, Sene is averaging 26.5 minutes, Sherrill 15, Mitchell 14.6 and Regan 4.6.
The injuries to Scott and Sherrill have allowed Mitchell to gain “very valuable experience,” Bennett said, “and Assane has been forced to play as many minutes as possible. So there’s been some development that way. We’ve maybe discovered a few things at times when we have a unique lineup on the floor with Joe as a 4, so some things have evolved from it.”
Scott is expected to receive a hardship waiver that will allow him to return as a fifth-year senior in 2011-12. Assuming that happens, Virginia’s frontcourt next season is likely to include Scott, Sene, Johnson, Mitchell, Regan and incoming freshman Darion Atkins.
That’s a lot of big bodies — if they’re healthy, of course. Might UVa try to redshirt another player in 2011-12?
“I think it’s always in play,” Bennett said.