By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Optimism reigns this time of year in most college basketball programs, especially among players, many of whom are not experienced enough to know better.
Coaches tend to be more cautious. Tony Bennett, who went 69-33 at Washington State, with two NCAA tournament appearances, did not predict great things in either of his first two seasons at UVa. Bennett knows, however, that Year 3 could be different.
“I think,” he told reporters Thursday during Virginia’s media day at John Paul Jones Arena, “this is, since I’ve been here, our best chance to take that next step.”
The Cavaliers have not extended a season beyond the ACC tournament since 2007-08, when they competed in the College Basketball Invitational. The CBI, it’s safe to say, is not Virginia’s target this season. The Wahoos want to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006-07, and nobody will be shocked if they get there.
“We got a lot of talent in this room right now,” junior point guard Jontel Evans said Thursday at JPJ. “A lot of people are excited about this team. Everybody feels like we have a good chance of making it to the NCAA tournament. That’s one of our goals. It just doesn’t happen like that, though. You have to work hard, because every team in the country is working hard for that one goal.”
From a team that finished 16-15 last season despite having its best player, Mike Scott, for only 10 games, six of the top seven scorers return. Those veterans include the 6-8 Scott, an All-ACC candidate who averaged 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds in 2010-11.
“Mike opens up stuff for everybody, just because of the player he is,” said sophomore swingman Joe Harris, who in Scott’s absence played out of position at power forward for long stretches.
“He’s a great offensive player, but he passes really well, too, out of the post.”
Scott, the team’s top low-post scorer, also has a soft touch from the perimeter. He’ll be “a marked man,” Bennett noted, “but I think that’s going to help the Joes, the Sammys, the KTs and all the other guys that play alongside him.”
A year ago, Bennett had to blend six freshmen in with his returning players. UVa’s latest group of freshmen — guard Malcolm Brogdon, small forward Paul Jesperson and power forward Darion Atkins — joined a program with significantly more experience.
Among the players back for Bennett are Scott, Evans, Harris, senior center Assane Sene, senior guard Sammy Zeglinski, sophomore guard KT Harrell and sophomore forward Akil Mitchell. There’s also 6-9 James Johnson, an athletic post player who practiced with the team last season while redshirting. Johnson has yet to play in a college game, but he’s not a typical freshman.
“With the experience returning, with even the younger guys that played last year, I think we’re in a better position to be improved,” Bennett said. “I think we improved from our first to our second year, and now I expect to be better this year.
“Obviously, guys have to stay healthy. It’s easier said than done, but we’ve improved in the offseason, and there’s a lot of experience there. I don’t get too hung up on the early-season projections, but I want our guys — I don’t know if ’embrace’ is the right word — but to not shy away from those and to expect to be a better team.”
Zeglinski and Scott are rarities in college hoops. Each is a fifth-year senior. Zeglinski received a hardship waiver after being injured early in 2007-08; Scott, for last season. Between them, they’ve started 129 games for the Cavaliers, and the 7-0 Sene has started 48.
“Those seniors, they really want to take the next step this year,” Bennett said.
In 2008-09, the Cavaliers’ final season under Dave Leitao, they finished 10-18. Virginia took a small step forward in 2009-10, finishing 15-16, and then another last season.
In each of Bennett’s first two seasons, his team was picked to finish 11th in the ACC. The ‘Hoos exceeded those expectations each year. They tied for ninth in 2009-10 and for seventh in 2010-11.
Bennett has been to the NCAA tourney as a player (at Wisconsin-Green Bay), as an assistant (at Wisconsin) and as a head coach (at Washington State). Those teams had several things in common, he said Thursday.
First, each was experienced, Bennett said, with “upperclassmen, guys that had been through the ropes and really had gone through some hard times.”
He laughed. “We got that one covered. We can check that box off, I’m pretty sure.”
Those NCAA tournament teams also had “a burning desire and a passion” to improve, Bennett said. They approached practices seriously and with a sense of purpose.
“I think we’re closer to that,” Bennett said. “We have the experience, and I think there’s a desperate desire to really want to improve.”
Evans said: “I’ve sensed it and I’ve seen it. Guys during the summer were going at each other real competitive, freshmen going against seniors, everybody just going against each other. On our days off, guys are coming in here, getting shots up, working on their weaknesses. Guys just want to get better.”
Practice officially begins Oct. 14 for the ‘Hoos, who open the season Nov. 13 against South Carolina State at JPJ. Before then, the Cavaliers will compete in two scrimmages that are closed to the public, one at Vanderbilt and the other against Baylor here.
The NCAA tournament is a goal the Cavaliers should embrace, Zeglinski said, but it’s important for them to “not really look too far into the future. We always say, ‘Live in the moment.’ We know we gotta be able to get better every day and take it step by step. Right now we’re just looking to the start of practice, and we got two big scrimmages coming up against two good teams.”
POSITION OF STRENGTH: Evans started 27 games at point guard in 2010-11, in part because Zeglinski was injured early in the season. Zeglinski, who can also play shooting guard, started 11 games last season.
They’ve been battling each other in workouts all fall, and it’s too early to say who’ll win the starting job.
“If anything, it’ll just make competition so much better,” Zeglinski said, “because we both want to start, and we’ll push each other in practice, and our team will benefit from it. In our offense, we have a lot of guards who can score and defend, so it’s going to be a good rotation, and everyone will have a chance to prove themselves.”
Evans said: “I want to start, but whatever role I have to play, I’m comfortable with that. But my main goal is, I want to be that guy controlling the show. I want to be the point. But either way, if I’m coming off the bench, I just have to come off the bench and give energy and help my team out. And if I’m starting, I gotta be out there controlling and setting the tempo for my guys.”
In 2010-11, Evans averaged 5.7 points and 2.4 rebounds and led the team in assists (3.5 per game). He was second in steals, barely behind Zeglinski, who averaged 7.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists.
Neither player distinguished himself at the foul line. Zeglinski shot 57.1 percent and Evans 59.6 percent.
ANOTHER OPTION: Look for the 6-5 Brogdon, a chiseled 215-pounder, to take some turns at point guard, too. At Greater Atlanta Christian School, Brogdon played both guard positions and was Georgia’s state Class AA player of the year as a senior.
He’s still learning to play the point at this level, Brogdon said Thursday, and he acknowledged that “it definitely is more challenging than I thought. When you’re at point guard, you have the most responsibility on the floor. People underestimate it, but it is the hardest position to play.”
He’s not as quick as some point guards he’ll face, Brogdon knows, but he has assets they don’t. “I try to use my length and my strength,” he said. “We work so much on defense. It’s not even about just stopping them straight up. It’s basically cutting and beating them to a spot.”
LEAN AND MEAN: Scott, who at one point during his college career weighed nearly 250 pounds, is listed at 237 this season, and he’s noticeably quicker on the court.
The 6-4 Harrell, who started 15 games at shooting guard last season, has dropped weight too. He’s at 198, after playing at 207 last season.
“I wasn’t fat,” Harrell said. “I felt like I was a little too bulky, though. Muscular, I guess you could say.”
Shedding those pounds has “definitely affected how much I play and how much quicker I am and how much more athletic I am,” Harrell said. “It definitely has helped.”
Harrell, who averaged 8.0 points as a freshman, said he’s much more comfortable than at this time last year.
“Having that experience is such a big deal,” he said. “Like I was telling one guy who asked me what I would say to the high school KT, I would just tell him, ‘You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.’ I think last year I was just so excited to be in the ACC that I didn’t understand how competitive it was. And now that I’ve been through a year and I understand the competitiveness and the talent level of the ACC, it’ll be a lot easier.”
MAJOR STRIDES: Scott didn’t play after Dec. 22 last season. With Scott out, Sene had to shoulder more responsibility in the frontcourt, and the Senegal native improved markedly over the second half of the season.
Sene had 15 rebounds against Maryland, 15 points and 13 boards against Wake Forest, nine points and nine rebounds against Miami in the ACC tournament.
Watching Sene blossom, Scott said Thursday, he was “like a happy dad just being proud of his son. All the times he worked after practice throwing the football with managers, working on his catching, Coach [Jason] Williford banging him with the body bag and making him finish. And Assane showed that. He was finishing and catching, and he got a lot stronger in the offseason.
“He’s finishing. He’s catching the ball more. I never had to worry about him defensively. He’s always going to work hard on defense, but he’s finishing around the basket, working on his touch. He’s definitely improved from last year.”