By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Craig Littlepage walked into the men’s practice gym at John Paul Jones Arena and greeted several colleagues late Friday afternoon.
“It’s the best day of the year, isn’t it?” Littlepage said, smiling.
The circus is in town, but UVa’s athletics director was not referring to the spectacle that would soon unfold on JPJ’s main floor. A basketball man through and through, Littlepage knew that 5 p.m. was approaching on Oct. 14. And that meant the Virginia men’s team was about to hold its first official practice of the 2011-12 season.
Since Sept. 15, third-year coach Tony Bennett and his assistants had been permitted to work with their entire roster for two hours a week. Once Oct. 14 arrived, however, Division I teams were allowed to practice 20 hours a week.
“It’s intense in the fall, but it’s shorter,” forward Mike Scott said.
Friday’s practice was as long as it was intense. The Cavaliers went for about 155 minutes before Scott, surrounded by teammates waving their arms and yelling, closed the proceedings by hitting back-to-back free throws.
“Good first day,” Bennett told his players at midcourt. “I told you I want you to fall in love with the process, and that’s a good first step.”
Littlepage, a former head coach at Penn and Rutgers, isn’t the only one who considers the first day of practice an occasion to cherish.
“The biggest difference for me as a coach is, I don’t feel the clock ticking, like, ‘OK, we only got two hours this week,’ ” Bennett said. “When I want to slow things down and explain something, I’m not trying to rushing through. I can take my time so they understand it, knowing that, hey, if we gotta add five minutes [to practice] because we went longer with a drill, that’s OK, which is very helpful.”
Bennett returned six of the top seven scorers from a team that finished 16-15 in 2011-12, and expectations are high around the program. One of those veterans, though, was a spectator Friday. Junior point guard Jontel Evans, who started 27 games last season, suffered a minor knee injury during practice Wednesday and is sidelined indefinitely.
“Thank goodness it wasn’t more serious,” Bennett said.
Fall workouts gave the coaching staff confidence that Malcolm Brogdon, a 6-5 freshman from the Atlanta area, can give the Wahoos another option at the point. Brogdon will work extensively at that position, along with fifth-year senior Sammy Zeglinski, while Evans is out.
“We’re just trying to get these guys opportunities, and for Malcolm, without Jontel, he and Sammy are running the show,” Bennett said. “Other guys can help, but I think it’s good for him. He did a good job [Friday], and competition will reveal” if Brogdon is capable of playing point guard at this level.
Virginia’s post players waged spirited battles in the paint Friday, an encouraging sight to former UVa great John Crotty and other guests watching from the sideline. The coaching staff’s decision to redshirt James Johnson, and the subsequent injuries to Scott and Will Sherrill, left the ‘Hoos perilously thin in the frontcourt at times last season.
Bennett heads into the new season with the 6-8 Scott, the 6-9 Johnson, 7-0 senior Assane Sene, 6-8 sophomore Akil Mitchell and 6-8 freshman Darion Atkins as frontcourt options.
Johnson, a redshirt freshman, suffered a broken nose early in practice Friday, but that didn’t keep him off the court for long.
“He put his mask on and went,” Bennett said.
Scott averaged 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds in 2010-11 before an ankle injury ended his season in late December. He received a hardship waiver and is back for a fifth year.
He’s been recovered from his injury for months. Even so, his fifth and final first practice was special for Scott.
“I was just real excited,” he said. “I was like a freshman or something. Just happy to be out here practicing.”
Bennett said: “Seeing Mike out there was good. We got work to do, but it’s good to be able to do it and not have a time constraint on it, so to speak.”
Four of UVa’s returning players shot worse than 60 percent from the line in 2010-11 — Evans (59.6), Zeglinski (57.1), Sene (55.7) and Mitchell (51.7) — and missed free throws contributed heavily to several of the team’s losses.
Desperate times call for innovative measures, and Bennett had deafening crowd noise played over the gym’s speakers late in the practice. Amid the din, Bennett summoned his players to the line, one by one. While the rest of the team sweated through exercises under the direction of strength-and-conditioning coach Mike Curtis, each player shot until he hit consecutive free throws.
Some players needed only two attempts, others five or six.
“I’m just trying to put them in spots where they’re tired, and they’re penalizing their teammates when they miss,” Bennett said. “Just trying to be creative with the mind.”
Virginia opens the season Nov. 13 against South Carolina State at JPJ. The team practices again Saturday morning.
Of the first practice, Scott said, “I think it went very well. We all still need to work on our defensive strategies and bringing everyone together with our freshmen, but other than that it was real positive.”
Bennett liked the energy level Friday, too. “But I think everybody’s first practices have great energy,” he said. “Will we have it tomorrow? That’s the question.”