By Jeff White
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Few players get asked to represent their teams at ACC Operation Basketball even once. UVa forward Mike Scott has been selected twice, which gives him a rare perspective, and the fifth-year senior’s second experience at the league’s annual media day differed markedly from his first.
Around the Virginia interview table Wednesday he found many more reporters than in 2010. “More talk,” Scott said at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, which hosted most of the proceedings.
“But you just embrace it. It’s all positive. It’s great that everybody’s talking about us, but I really don’t focus on it, honestly. I focus on the process of getting better.”
The Cavaliers’ other representative in Charlotte this year — besides Tony Bennett — was another fifth-year senior, Sammy Zeglinski. The 6-1 guard can speak to the heightened expectations too.
“You kind of feel a buzz around the University, and everybody’s kind of excited about the season coming up,” Zeglinski said. “I think everybody’s really looking forward to that.”
A year ago, media who cover the league picked UVa 11th in the 12-team ACC. (The Wahoos finished tied for seventh.) The Cavaliers are projected — by media members, at least — to finish fourth this season. That’s the highest the ‘Hoos have been picked in the preseason poll in 10 years.
“We’re definitely in a position to have some success this year, but at the same we need to go out and earn it,” Zeglinski said. “Nothing’s going to be given to us. Just because people are saying we’re supposed to be successful doesn’t exactly mean we’re going to go out and win games. We have to take it on a day-to-day basis and keep getting better every day and take strides to reach our goals.”
In 2009-10, Bennett’s first season in Charlottesville, his team went 15-16 and tied for ninth in the conference after being picked to finish 11th. Virginia improved to 16-15 in 2010-11 despite having Scott for only 10 games — none after Christmas.
Scott, fully recovered from ankle surgery and, at 6-8, 237 pounds, in superb condition, was one of six players named to the preseason All-ACC team Wednesday. Before being shut down last season, he averaged 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds.
“The year sitting out, in my opinion, has given him a level of maturity that you can’t get without experiencing some kind of injury or obstacle like that that’s thrown at you,” Bennett said. “I’ve seen a difference in Mike in his efforts to try and lead.”
Scott said: “I definitely learned a lot. I learned how to become a better leader, learned a lot about the game. I definitely still need to improve, but I’ll be a couple steps ahead of where I was last year.”
Bennett said he’s never coached a team with two fifth-year seniors, and the experience of Scott and Zeglinski should pay dividends.
“You can’t put a pricetag on having been through it,” Bennett said. “And neither of them have had the success they want to, so I think they’re real hungry to try. Sammy and Mike really want to leave this program in a good place, and they don’t want to walk after five years of not having made a real serious run at being a legitimate team.”
The ACC’s landscape has shifted significantly since UVa hired Bennett away from Washington State in the spring of 2009. After adding three new coaches in 2010-11 — Boston College’s Steve Donahue, Wake Forest’s Jeff Bzdelik and Clemson’s Brad Brownell — the league has four more this season: Georgia Tech’s Brian Gregory, Maryland’s Mark Turgeon, NC State’s Mark Gottfried and Miami’s Jim Larranaga, a former UVa assistant who is close with Bennett’s father, Dick.
Only four coaches have more seniority in the ACC than Bennett: Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton and Virginia Tech’s Seth Greenberg.
“For being in our third year, I think we’ve made the right kind of steps,” Bennett said. “We have the right pieces in place. The league always changes. There’s great talent in our league. We’ll never probably be on equal or better footing than some teams in our league, but that’s OK. It’s so much about having enough talent and pulling it all together and playing collectively, and that will always be the way we’ll have a chance to go beyond. I think our players understand that, and I understand that, because if you just get in talent for talent, guy for guy, it probably isn’t going to happen. But it’s a team game. It’s one of the purest team games. That’s why I’m coaching it and why I played it.”
In Scott’s absence last year, players such as Assane Sene and Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris assumed larger roles than they might have otherwise. Moreover, Bennett said Wednesday, the loss of Scott “made us better as a coaching staff. We had to figure out ways [to put the team in position to win], because you didn’t have a lot of answers for things … Again, it simplified or purified what we needed to do to have a chance. So from that standpoint it was challenging but good. It stretched us.
“With him last year, who knows how much better we would have been? You never know. But sitting here right now, I’ll tell you this, I’m glad he’s back this year.”
That said, “I don’t want to put too much on Mike, saying, ‘He’s the answer,’ ” Bennett told reporters Wednesday. “I’ve got that sense that everything thinks just because Mike’s back, all is well. It’s not that easy. He’s going to help us. He’s a very good player. He’s worked hard, but this is about everybody improving, and this is a collective team more than I’ve had my first two years.”
Not surprisingly, the ‘Hoo crew in Charlotte fielded many, many questions about the NCAA tournament. The Cavaliers haven’t advanced to the NCAAs since 2006-07, when Scott was at Hargrave Military Academy and Zeglinski was at Penn Charter School in Philadelphia.
“Everybody likes to talk about the tournament,” Zeglinski said, “and obviously that’s a goal of ours, so we’re not going to shy away from that subject, because we definitely strive to get to the tournament. But we know that we need to put in the work and get better every day and really prove it out on the court that we deserve to be there.”
Bennett has been to the NCAA tournament as a player (at Wisconsin-Green Bay), as an assistant (at Wisconsin) and as a head coach (at Washington State).
“It’s a noble goal, and when you can get there, it’s just the best,” he said. “And having done it as a player and a coach, I know what it does for your program, and that’s why you’re desperately fighting to get there. But you can’t become so consumed with it that it takes your focus away from being as good as you can be.”