By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For some perspective on the span of Sammy Zeglinski’s association with the University of Virginia men’s basketball program, consider this:
Darion Atkins, Malcolm Brogdon and Paul Jesperson were seventh-graders in September 2005. That’s when Zeglinski, a junior at Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, became then-coach Dave Leitao’s first recruit at UVa.
Some six years later, Zeglinski, at 23, is the oldest player on the Cavaliers’ roster (though classmate Mike Scott is only a month younger). Atkins, Brogdon and Jesperson are now Zeglinski’s teammates, and Tony Bennett is heading into his third season as Virginia’s coach.
“It’s been a while,” Zeglinski said, reflecting on the day he committed to Leitao, Bennett’s predecessor.
For Zeglinski, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s in anthropology, college life has been filled with obstacles. Since enrolling at UVa, the 6-1, 185-pound guard has undergone four operations: two on his right ankle, one on his left hip and another on his left knee.
“The thing I’m most proud of,” John Zeglinski said, is his youngest son’s toughness. “He’s played with a lot of pain. He’s been through a lot, and I give him credit. He’s a battler.”
Sammy’s ankle problems prematurely ended his first college season, and he was granted a harship waiver that allowed him to be classified as a redshirt freshman in 2008-09. But his subsequent injuries have made it difficult for him to train for long, uninterrupted stretches. And that’s why this offseason has been so important for Zeglinski, who will battle junior Jontel Evans for the starting point guard’s job in 2011-12.
“This is the best I’ve felt probably since I’ve been here,” Zeglinski said recently at John Paul Jones Arena. “Being able to work out every day is going to be really helpful for my game, because the offseason’s when you can individually improve. Coach tells us what we need to work on, and then we just go to work. It’s great to be healthy finally. My body feels good.”
So good that he has rarely had to call on Ethan Saliba, the team’s athletic trainer. Saliba and Zeglinski have spent untold hours together over the past four years.
“I try not even to look at him,” Zeglinski said, smiling. “Ethan says, ‘Do you need anything?’ I say, ‘No, I’m good,’ and I just keep walking.”
Zeglinski is coming off a season in which he started 11 of the 24 games in which he played. He missed UVa’s first seven games while recovering from an operation that repaired cartilage damage in his left knee. Grueling rehab sessions with Saliba and Mike Curtis, the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach, helped Zeglinski make his 2010-11 debut in early December, ahead of schedule. Not until late January, though, did his shots start dropping with any consistency.
“Coach Curtis did a great job getting me back,” Zeglinski said, “and Ethan, obviously. But it was tough getting into a rhythm. By the tail end of the season, I thought I was starting to get into a little bit of a rhythm. My shot was feeling a lot better. I was getting my legs into it.”
The high point for Zeglinski came March 5 at Comcast Center, where he buried 6 of 7 shots from 3-point range and finished with a career-high 25 points in UVa’s 74-60 victory over Maryland in the regular-season finale.
Five days later, however, the Cavaliers crashed in mind-boggling fashion. Virginia led by 10 points with 40 seconds in regulation and, incredibly, somehow managed to lose, falling 69-62 in overtime to Miami in the ACC tournament’s first round.
Zeglinski has yet to watch a videotape of the game but said, “I think we all still remember it pretty clearly. It still hurts. We just use it as motivation.”
Against the Hurricanes, Zeglinski scored 13 points, and his catch-and-shoot trey gave the Wahoos a 48-39 lead with 2:57 remaining in the second half. But he also had four turnovers — and no assists — and went 0 for 3 from the line, with all the misses coming late in regulation.
Does he replay the decisive stretches of that game in his mind?
“All the time,” Zeglinski said. “It was the toughest game I’ve ever lost. So it’s hard to get over, but at some point you gotta turn the page and go on.”
Zeglinski averaged 7.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals as a redshirt junior, and he had nearly twice as many assists (54) as turnovers (29). But he shot only 35.6 percent from the floor and 57.1 percent from the line. For a point guard, that’s alarmingly poor free-throw shooting.
“He’s shown flashes of being a really, really good player in the ACC,” said John Zeglinski, who played football and baseball at Wake Forest. “But he still has to become more consistent, obviously. The big thing’s that been bugging him are the free throws.”
In his meetings with UVa’s coaches after the 2010-11 season, Zeglinski said, he was told to work on finishing around the rim, making good decisions and improving his accuracy from the floor and the line.
After the 2009-10 season, he had hip surgery, which limited his participation in Curtis’ summer program. Zeglinski had no such restraints this summer.
“When his summers have always been interrupted for large chunks — and his falls, for that matter — the fact that he can work with Mike Curtis for that long and really train hard with him and be on the floor, get his reps, get his timing down, that’s significant,” Bennett said.
“You want to keep building up and hit your peak as you’re coming into the season, so your timing and your feel and all that is good. So I think that’ll be significant for Sammy.”
Zeglinski is enrolled in the Curry School of Education’s Professional Development Program and will compete as a graduate student this season. When he arrived at UVa four summers ago, he never expected to still be playing there in 2011-12, but Zeglinski is in no hurry to move on.
“He’s had a long journey,” John Zeglinski said. “The best thing about it is, he has a chance now to go out with a bang. I think they have a chance to be pretty good.”
The ‘Hoos had their best player, Scott, for only 10 games last season, yet still finished 16-15. Six of the top seven scorers from that team return, including the 6-8 Scott, who averaged 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds in 2010-11.
The Cavaliers haven’t played in the NCAA tournament since 2007, when their point guard was Sean Singletary, who preceded Zeglinski at Penn Charter.
To help the ‘Hoos return to the NCAAs “would mean everything,” Zeglinski said. “Obviously Virginia basketball’s going in the right direction, and just to be part of a team and being able to build something special and to say that we were there when it really turned around would be great.”