By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For a stretch of seven games that began Feb. 2 against Clemson, they started alongside each other, redshirt junior Sammy Zeglinski at shooting guard and sophomore Jontel Evans at the point.
When eighth-seeded UVa (16-14) takes the court for its ACC tournament opener, however, Evans is likely to be on the bench. Zeglinski has started the past two games at point guard — both wins for Virginia — and figures to continue in that role Thursday afternoon against No. 9 seed Miami (18-13) at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“It doesn’t bother me one bit,” Evans said after practice Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “I’m part of something that’s bigger than me. I play for what’s in the front of my chest instead of what’s in the back. I still have the same role: come in there, get guys open shots and don’t turn the ball over, and play great defense.”
The 6-1 Zeglinski started 29 games in 2009-10, many of them at point guard. But he had an operation on his left hip last April and then another surgery, this one on his left knee, in October.
Zeglinski missed the first seven games of the season while rehabbing his knee, and his absence created an opportunity for the 5-11 Evans, the Wahoos’ best on-the-ball defender.
Evans started 27 of UVa’s first 28 games. As Zeglinski got healthier, though, his minutes increased, and second-year coach Tony Bennett used him at both guard positions. And then on Senior Night at JPJ, Bennett shook up his lineup.
Will Sherrill started at power forward against NC State — partly, of course, because he’s a senior. But the right fibula that Sherrill had fractured twice during the season had finally healed enough for him to handle extensive playing time, and he logged a career-high 37 minutes against the Wolfpack.
Sherrill’s return allowed 6-6 freshman Joe Harris to move from power forward back to his natural position on the wing. In the backcourt, Bennett went with senior Mustapha Farrakhan at the 2 and Zeglinski at the 1. And suddenly the ‘Hoos had four 3-point threats — Sherrill, Harris, Farrakhan and Zeglinski — on the floor at the same time.
“That changes us,” said Bennett, a former NBA point guard.
The new lineup paid immediate dividends last Tuesday night. Sherrill had 14 points and 8 rebounds in UVa’s 69-58 win over State, and Zeglinski added 10 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists, with only 1 turnover.
Four days later, in the regular-season finale at Maryland, Bennett stayed with that starting five. Sherrill matched his career high with 9 rebounds, and Zeglinski was 6 for 7 from beyond the arc. Zeglinski finished with a career-best 25 points (plus 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals) in UVa’s 74-60 win.
Given a choice, Zeglinski said on Bennett’s radio show Monday night, he prefers point guard over shooting guard.
“I think everybody likes to have the ball in their hands,” he said.
For the season, Zeglinski is averaging 7.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.1 turnovers. He’s tied with Evans for the team lead in steals per game at 1.3, and Zeglinski’s assist-to-turnover ratio is the Cavaliers’ best.
“I’m glad he’s healthy,” Evans said. “He’s giving us a great contribution as the starting point guard, and I’m just real happy for him.”
Evans (38.5 percent) is shooting better from the floor than Zeglinski (34.9), but Zeglinski is superior from 3-point range and from the foul line. He’s also a better rebounder than Evans.
“Sammy’s complete,” Bennett said on his radio show. “That’s what I really like about his game. I think he gives us some versatility and completeness that’s been a shot in the arm for us since he’s been back.”
Through UVa’s first 28 games, Evans averaged 28.4 minutes. He played 13 against the Wolfpack and 14 against the Terrapins.
“That can sometimes get discouraging” for a player, Bennett acknowledged Monday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference. “But you never know when you’re going to be playing a lot. Certain situations arise. Matchups. All those things are so important, and [Evans is] a very important part of our success, with his ability to get to the lane, certainly to really set our defense. I think he’s handled it well and will continue to.”
Zeglinski has made 138 treys during his college career. Twice he’s made six in a game, and he “gives us a little bit more of a threat from the perimeter, which maybe opens also some driving opportunities and lets us play at times more to our strengths,” Bennett said.
“Jontel gives us a different strength, the defense and the ability to get to the rim and the lane.”
Evans, who’s averaging 5.6 points. 2.3 rebounds and a team-high 3.6 assists, made a crucial jumper late in the game Saturday afternoon at College Park, and he hit several big shots Feb. 5 in UVa’s overtime loss at Miami.
“I’m not scared to take that shot if it’s open,” Evans said Monday.
Overall, though, he’s made only 4 of his past 19 attempts from the floor. That’s one reason the former Bethel High star stayed on the court after practice Monday for a session with assistant coach Ron Sanchez.
“When I was coming off the ball screens,” Evans said later, “the coaches felt like I was going one speed. Me and Coach Sanchez have been working after practice on changing speeds, getting in there, staying with my shot and working on my floater shot as well.”