By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On June 12 they arrived at the University of Virginia: Malcolm Brogdon, Darion Atkins and Paul Jesperson, first-year students who chose UVa in no small part because they wanted to play basketball for Tony Bennett and his staff.
After what seemed an eternity to the newest Cavaliers — nearly 11 weeks — Thursday afternoon arrived, and they finally got to share the court with Bennett and assistant coaches Ritchie McKay, Ron Sanchez and Jason Williford.
“They’ve exceeded my expectations,” Brogdon said that evening in the men’s practice gym at John Paul Jones Arena. “The workout today was a great workout, and I know they’re going to make me a lot better, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
For Division I men’s basketball teams, practice does not officially start until Oct. 14. Thursday, however, marked the start of a period in which the NCAA allows players to train in small groups with their coaches.
He signed to play for Bennett, Brogdon said, “and I feel like now I’m being coached by him.”
Each player is now allowed eight hours of organized training per week: six hours with Mike Curtis, the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach, and two with Bennett and his assistants.
During summer school, players were allowed to train with Curtis, but not with Bennett or his assistants. Moreover, the players’ pickup games were off limits to the coaches, too.
“It’s fun to be able to work with them and be more hands-on,” Bennett said, “as opposed to just talking.”
For now, the coaches can work with no more than four players at one time. Starting Sept. 15, though, the NCAA permits a coaching staff to work with the entire team — again for only two hours a week.
After being around them for much of the summer, Bennett is delighted to be able to actually coach his players, especially the newcomers. Still, Bennett said, the official start of practice in October is “always special, because you know you’ve got 20 hours a week” with the team.
UVa’s 2011-12 roster consists of 11 scholarship players, plus walk-ons Thomas Rogers and Doug Browman. The players were split into three groups Thursday, and each had 40 minutes with the coaching staff.
The first group: Brogdon, sophomore guard KT Harrell, redshirt freshman post player James Johnson and fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott.
The second: Atkins, junior guard Jontel Evans, fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinki and senior center Assane Sene.
The third: Jesperson, Rogers, sophomore swingman Joe Harris and sophomore forward Akil Mitchell.
Brogdon is a 6-5, 215-pound guard from Norcross, Ga.; Atkins, a 6-8, 220-pound post player from Clinton, Md.; and Jesperson, a 6-6, 195-pound swingman from Merrill, Wis.
“They did fine,” Bennett said. “The first day, we didn’t do a whole lot. As always with young guys, you can tell they’ll need to be taught the little nuances of footwork, whether it’s shooting, defense, some of the simple things. But they’re all sharp young men, so I think they’ll pick it up quickly.”
What struck him about Thursday’s workout, Brogdon said afterward, was “probably the intensity at which we played today. Coach McKay really pushes us hard, and he sets the tone for us really, and we just play with a lot of intensity. We went hard today.”
Bennett, who’s heading into his third season at UVa, said he could tell that the freshmen had spent the summer training with Curtis.
“Definitely,” Bennett said. “Physically, they look good that way. They’ll have to learn some of the skills and the technicalities that we want, but there’s a lot of time for that.”
The first-year players join a team that returns six of its top seven scorers from 2010-11, including the 6-8 Scott. He averaged 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds but played in only 10 games before having season-ending surgery on his ankle.
In the first 40-minute session Thursday, Scott was matched against the 6-9 Johnson, a powerful athlete who clearly made good use of his year on the sidelines.
“That was the whole idea,” Bennett said. “He’ll have to get accustomed to the games and playing, but there’s no question he used his redshirt year to get up to speed, and he’s got a nice career in front of him.”
INTRIGUING EXPERIMENT: Evans and Zeglinski split time at point guard in 2010-11, and they figure to do so again this season. With Zeglinski in his last year of eligibility, the coaching staff hopes to determine this fall if the chiseled Brogdon might be an option at the point.
In the first session Thursday, Brogdon was the first player to handle the ball, dribbling the length of the court against the tenacious defense of Harrell.
“I think I can [play the point] if needed,” Brogdon said. “I think all I need is the opportunity. I’ve been working on my ballhandling hard for the past year and a half, because I know this opportunity might present itself to me.”
Brogdon’s ability — or inability — to run an offense will “reveal itself as the practices start and we get into early-season things,” Bennett said, but that’s not a focal point of these sessions.
“In the four-man workouts, we’re working on a little more individual skill work and game-improvement things,” Bennett said. “Then maybe we’re going to pick one or two things that we think we want to improve on, [such as] ball-screen defense, and just try to be good by the time practice starts in a couple of areas.
“You can’t tackle everything in two hours a week, but certainly you’ve got to develop the skills, and the players have been doing some things that will help practice run smoother and help them not be confused when we start, because it picks up and starts going fast. So you want to at least give them some basics that will carry over.”
WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR: The ACC released its 2011-12 men’s basketball schedule Wednesday, and UVa opens conference play Jan. 7 against Miami at JPJ.
A season ago, Virginia’s ACC opener came well before Christmas. Many coaches prefer to start conference play in January, but Bennett said he doesn’t feel strongly about it one way or the other.
“I liked it last year. It was fine,” Bennett said with a smile, remembering UVa’s Dec. 5 win over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
The Cavaliers’ pre-Christmas schedule this year includes three games at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a home game against Michigan in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and a home game against George Mason. There are also road games against Oregon and Seattle, a lightly regarded team that upset Virginia at JPJ last season.
“We’ll have to be ready early,” Bennett said. “But I think last year’s schedule early helped prepare us. Even though we had to adjust without Mike and Will [Sherrill], it was still good to play games that you really had to be ready for.”
LESS IS MORE: Scott, who was listed at 242 pounds last season, is noticeably thinner this season. He’s around 235, and that’s not by accident.
“That’s something that we talked about at the end of last season,” Curtis said. “We were looking at how we could make him more mobile. He was a big, strong kid, but part of what we needed to do was make him more mobile. I think his aspirations and his dreams are to continue playing [after college], and he already has a good skill set to be able to expand his game, and we thought that the one thing that needed to take place was just an ability to be more mobile, and losing a little bit of the baby fat was going to allow him to do that.”
Scott faced months of rehabilitation after having major surgery on his left ankle in late January. Curtis worried that Scott might gain unwanted weight while sidelined, but those concerns proved unfounded.
“That’s another statement about the evolution that’s taken place with Mike over the last couple years,” Curtis said. “Whatever you tell him he needs to do in order to try to be successful, he’s going to embrace and then try to do it. That’s a big thing, because two years ago, he probably would have fought you a little bit. But now he’s completely bought in, and he understands that we’re here to try to help him achieve his dreams and get him where he needs to be.”
In the offseason last year, Scott got up to around 250 pounds, Curtis said. Scott dropped weight this year mostly by “paying attention to his diet,” Curtis said.
“That was the big thing. Because we do enough stuff in terms of activity [to keep players] lean. The biggest thing was that he had to watch what he was eating. He was a little bit of a McDonald’s and fast-food guy. [UVa sports nutritionist] Randy Bird kind of set a plan for him, and then in addition to that, with what we’re doing in the weight room, it all kind of made the right recipe for him to be able to lose some of that weight.”
WORKS IN PROGRESS: Curtis spent many hours with the freshmen in the weight room and on the court this summer. His thoughts on each:
* Brogdon — “Malcom came in by far the most physically prepared for ACC play of the three. He’d had a good foundation of training. He’d been probably a little bit more in tune with his body a little longer than Paul or Darion. He came in with this amazing level of what I call ‘man-strength.’ It didn’t necessarily have a lot to do with barbells and dumbbells, but he was just a kid who really knew how to handle his body. And then on top of that, once you get him ingrained with the weight-training stuff, he’s going to get even stronger.”
* Jesperson — “Paul really put in a lot of work before he came in. He gained some weight. He took the program that we sent all of our incoming freshmen and really, really just got after it. He actually came in about seven or eight pounds heavier than we thought he was going to be. So that laid a great foundation. From a weight-training standpoint, and what I needed him to be able to do from our program, he was the best-prepared, because he had started that really early on. So all the things that I was thinking I was going to have to teach him, he had already gotten used to and gotten weight-room strong. So now we’re just trying to bridge that gap and turn that weight-room strength into more athleticism on the court.”
* Atkins — “Darion was the one who probably needed the most work. He didn’t have extensive experience in a structured weight-training program. So he’s been the one that we’ve tried to focus on getting ready for ACC play the most, just because from a strength standpoint he’s the one who needs it most. He’s probably the most athletic and bouncy of the three, but from what he’s going to need to do in this league, position-wise, he’s the one who needs the strength the most. He’s done a phenomenal job this summer. He came in about 212, and he’s now up to 219, 220.”
When he puts freshmen through his summer strength-and-conditioning program, Curtis said, he’s trying “to lay the stage for what’s going to have to take place when Coach Bennett and those guys get their hands on them. Just from a cultural standpoint, having [the freshmen] understand what our expectations are as a program. That’s probably the most important thing, because a lot of these kids don’t understand what level of effort is going to have to be put forth every day in order to compete at this level.”