By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — March is a time when college basketball coaches would like to be thinking about the next postseason game, not the next season.
Tony Bennett is among those who, like it or not, must now focus on 2011-12. His second season at UVa ended March 10 in Greensboro, N.C. That’s where Virginia collapsed in the final minute of regulation and then lost in overtime to Miami in the ACC tournament’s first round.
The Cavaliers (16-15), who were without their best player, 6-8 forward Mike Scott, for the final two months of the season, probably needed to win two games in Greensboro to earn an invitation to the NIT.
The Wahoos could have settled for a spot in the less-prestigious College Basketball Invitational, as they had in 2008, but Bennett and University officials ultimately decided against it. And so the ‘Hoos, who finished 15-16 last season, again find themselves on the outside looking in.
“Hopefully we won’t get used to it,” Bennett said, “but it’s here. You make the most of it.”
In his three seasons as head coach at Washington State — Bennett’s employer before he came to UVa — he led the Cougars to the NCAAs twice and to the NIT once.
As a player at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Bennett made one trip to the NCAA tournament and two appearances in the NIT. As an assistant at Wisconsin, he helped the Badgers reach the NCAAs in each of his four seasons.
Bennett’s postseason drought at UVa is likely to end next season. Virginia’s only seniors were guard Mustapha Farrakhan (13.5 ppg) and forward Will Sherrill (4.3 ppg), who missed 10 games because of fractures in his right fibula.
Six of the Cavaliers’ top seven scorers are expected back in 2011-12, including Scott (15.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg), an all-ACC candidate who was limited to 10 games because of an ankle injury, and guard Sammy Zeglinski (7.8 ppg), a redshirt junior who missed the first seven games while recovering from knee surgery.
Zeglinski started the Cavaliers’ final 10 games. Others with eligibility remaining include 7-0 center Assane Sene, 5-11 point guard Jontel Evans, 6-6 swingman Joe Harris and 6-4 shooting guard KT Harrell, who started 27, 27, 25 and 15 games this season, respectively.
Virginia’s players are eager to begin training for 2011-12, and some were back in the gym soon after the ACC tournament. But Bennett insisted that they “take about a 10-day to a 14-day break where they get away from it,” he said.
“I told them I was going to be like an NFL owner and lock ’em out. Stay away from the gym for that short time, and even the weight room, and just do more recovery stuff, because there’s a mental and a physical aspect that you need to recover.”
In a recent interview with VirginiaSports.com, Bennett reflected on his second season at UVa and looked ahead to 2011-12. Excerpts follow.
JW: Now that some time has passed since the ACC tournament, what are your general thoughts on the season?
Bennett: I think we still have a ways to go, but there was progress made. Winning four out of our last five regular-season games was progress. We played some good basketball.
And then there was how we ended the ACC tournament, I told our young men, our team, ‘Remember how this feels, and use this as motivation and a sting to improve in the offseason, so that you come back a better individual player and we come back collectively as a better team.’ But from a start-to-finish standpoint, with having to make some adjustments due to injuries, Sammy early and then Will and Mike, the experience gained by our first- and second-year players was important.
And then the improvement I saw in Assane and Jontel — Sammy was a latecomer to the party, with his injuries — but those two specifically made some strides in their game, so that part was positive. And again I think we became a better team. I don’t know if we had the individual talent of last year, but I thought we played better basketball, so from that standpoint, the direction of the program was improved. But we still have to take another step. And obviously it will be an important year coming up here, but I’m smart enough to step back and look at it and say, from a big-picture perspective, there was progress made. But we still have to improve, and we still have to continue to add. The key is to add good players to the fold.
JW: When you lost Mike Scott to the season-ending ankle injury, did you worry that the team might fall apart without him?
Bennett: I think every coach has a worst-case scenario in mind. You’re like, ‘Oh, man.’ You have to say, ‘Where are we going to find scoring? How are we going to play on the glass with our inexperience?’So I was concerned, initially, but then as we continued to evolve and develop, I was pleased with how the guys rallied around that and came together and responded.
If you look at us statistically, in some ways we weren’t real impressive, but we won more games and we were more competitive than last year. Guys got that experience, and we got closer to how we have to be.
JW: Your team lost twice in overtime to Miami after giving up a significant lead late in the second half of each game. Is it fair to say those losses stung you the most this season?
Bennett: Those two for sure. You felt like it was in our control. At one point, everything had to go wrong for us and pretty much go right for them [for the Hurricanes to win]. It was just a matter of taking care of the ball, making free throws, not fouling.
The second one was even more dramatic than the first. But the first was pretty dramatic, too.
JW: You passed on the CBI. Why?
Bennett: That decision was made kind of collectively [with the UVa administration]. We talked about it, and to host in those tournaments, there are financial obligations that are not small.
There was certainly the desire to play in postseason, and the goals were the NCAA or the NIT … It would have been interesting if we had beaten Miami. Who knows would what have happened [with the NIT]?
Our seniors [and Zeglinski] had played in the CBI, so they had experienced that and were familiar with that tournament. Our younger players in this program got a ton of experience this year, and I felt like with the road games we played, just playing in the ACC and all that, experience was gained. And from just talking with the administration, we just felt like it was best, if we couldn’t make the NIT, to just end the season and not pursue the CBI.
JW: KT Harrell played well against Miami in the ACC tourney. Given his late-season slump, how important was that as he moves into his second year?
Bennett: It was nice to see him have a strong finish in that game. He gave us a very good lift. He did some positive things this year, no question, and I know KT and all of our first-years hold themselves to high standards. He just hit the wall a little bit, and it was nice to see him have a nice outing in his last game.
JW: You finished the season with five scholarship freshmen: Harrell, Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell, James Johnson and Will Regan. What’s next for them?
Bennett: Very important offseason. I think now all those guys know, ‘OK, this is what it’s like. This is the level. This is the athleticism. This is the strength factor.’ I think you have a real realistic view of your game after going through it, and you really know how to go to work and get after it. Just like the Mus and Jontels and Assanes really improved, these guys will be able to.
It’s harder to do it when you’re coming in [as freshmen]. Yeah, I can tell you what you gotta work on, and you can work with [strength-and-conditioning coach Mike] Curtis, but now it’s there.
JW: Three of your freshmen played significant minutes this season. How will that experience affect them going forward?
Bennett: This was a unique year, and when we recruited this large class, they knew the opportunity for them as freshmen was significant. And then even more so, they didn’t have a choice when Sammy was out, and then Will [Sherrill] got hurt, and then Mike. It just thrust our young guys into playing situations where it was, ‘Ready or not, here I come.’ We weren’t the greatest, but as I said many times, it was very valuable for them and for the direction and the future of our program. I think that part was big.
Now coming back we’ll have a little more returning depth, more experience, and it’s probably be a little more the way a program should be in terms of not having to rely on your freshmen. If they’re good enough and they can play, they’ll play. If not, well, they earn it, they develop, and they get to the point where in time they’ll get their opportunity.
So for the [freshmen] that played a lot this year, I think they realize — I hope they do — how fortunate they are, though there were some ups and downs. It was a great experience, and they’re such good hard workers, and so eager to get better, that I think they’ll use that to their fullest.
JW: With Mike, Assane, James, Akil, Will Regan and Darion Atkins, you should have a full complement of frontcourt players in 2011-12, which obviously was not the case this season. How will that change things for you?
Bennett: There’ll be a little more traditional lineup, and there will be some competition, certainly, for those spots. You want to get your program to where you have a little more depth and competition in spots.
This year some guys played because there wasn’t any option. When there’s competition, it’s challenging. It’s also good from the standpoint of, hopefully you get the best out of your players.
JW: You’ll have several new players in 2011-12. (James Johnson redshirted this season, and three recruits signed with UVa in November: 6-8 power forward Darion Atkins, 6-7 small forward Paul Jesperson and 6-5 guard Malcolm Brogdon.) What are your expectations for them next season?
Bennett: With all of our first-years coming in, or newcomers, you hope they’ll have great offseasons, you hope they’ll develop and be ready. There is a big jump and a big adjustment [to college basketball]. As I tell every guy we recruit, ‘When you come here, I won’t guarantee anything. I mean, I’ll guarantee you a phenomenal education, I’ll give you a fair opportunity to play, we’ll work with you, we believe in you, but you gotta earn what you get on the floor. And sometimes there’s more opportunity early, depending on your position, than other times. But if you’re good enough, you’ll play.’
JW: You have nine scholarship players returning. Could you provide a comment or two about what each needs to do to improve his game? Let’s start with Sammy Zeglinski.
Bennett: First for Sammy, to have a legitimate offseason of physical and skill development will be crucial for him. I think he’s got to become more consistent. If you look at some things statistically, I think consistency is a big thing. And then just continuing to be a very good decision-maker and leader, as he’s going to be a senior who’s played the point-guard spot for us and combo guard for us.
JW: Assane Sene.
Bennett: I think he made a big jump from last season to this season, and I think he needs to continue to add as much strength and weight as he can in this time. That will be significant. He needs to continue to work on his catching, his finishing, his ability to [score around the basket], his free throws.
He’s going to play, and hopefully with Mike in there, he’ll have some chances to really get on that offensive glass. He scored a lot on offensive rebound putbacks [this season].
JW: Mike Scott.
Bennett: I just want certainly for him to get healthy, but then really work on his mobility. The charge to him is to be a guy who can really play out of his area, and really runs the floor well, can really cover some ground and be relentless in his work ethic. I want to really see his mobility improve and certainly for him to continue to work on every aspect of his game. I think he made the most out of his leadership role from where he was [on the bench this season], and I thought that was a positive thing.
JW: Jontel Evans.
Bennett: I think he has to continue to improve his ability to stick a medium-range jump shot, work on his one-dribble pull-up and his finishing on the offensive end. His shot improved from last year to this year, but it’s got to improve some more — he knows that — and also his ability, when he gets in the lane, just to be a real good decision-maker, because he’s quick enough to get in there.
On the ball, he’s one of the best defenders I’ve seen when he’s motivated and locked in. I always challenge Jontel: ‘Become now a better off-ball defender. Become an upperclassman mentally. You’ve got a lot of experience. You were an underclassman last year. Now you’re an upperclassman, and let that be evident and show in your game with a maturity level, a poise and a decision-making, and an improvement in the skill areas that will help this team.’
JW: James Johnson.
Bennett: If you watched James in the individual workouts and those things, he really was impressive. For James it’ll be just about going from the individual work, the skill development, to playing in a game setting. He has to learn to be continuous. We talk about that a lot with him. He needs to work on going from one play to the next play to the next play, making the transition from offense to defense and back, and just being really aware of bodies around him.
The more he can play and get in game experiences, he’ll improve through that. Because again, individually when he does the workouts, works on his outside shot and his inside-outside game, he’ll do some impressive things. But some of it’s just taking that talent he has and now fitting it into a game setting and improving.
JW: Will Regan.
Bennett: He’s gotta add some strength and some weight and really continue to just develop. He’s got a good feel, and his attitude’s phenomenal. Out of the all the [freshmen] that played, he got the least time. I hope he’ll just become real consistent, in some ways like Will Sherrill, where he becomes very automatic with a mid-range to a longer-range jump shot, but yet continue to gain some strength and get as athletic as he can.
JW: Akil Mitchell.
Bennett: He did some real nice things defensively. I think he has to continue to develop his ball skills, his midrange shot. Continue to work on developing some interior things, and certainly working on the free throws. A lot of those guys have to get their [shooting] mechanics down. I think strength, too, for him is big; upper-body strength.
JW: Joe Harris.
Bennett: Joe has got to continue to work on, I think, his ability [in different ways]. He needs to improve his ability to try to create his own shot, not like a point guard, but when he gets in the lane, whether it’s finishing on a drive or making the pass out. Being a little more creative, if he’s going to get guarded as hard as he was. He needs continue to develop his strength and athleticism too, and, like all of them, he has to improve defensively.
JW: KT Harrell.
Bennett: KT has to just continue to work on his ballhandling and improving his mobility and athleticism a little bit, his first step, things like that, with Coach Curtis. I think that will really help his game. Just continuing to work on his ball skills, and working on some things, just getting a little more athletic and mobile.