By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In his team’s 2010-11 opener, UVa men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett played five freshmen, three of whom remained in the rotation all season.
Bennett’s latest team will rely more heavily on veterans. Of the Cavaliers’ 11 scholarship players, only three were not in the program last season. Bennett plans to redshirt 6-6 freshman Paul Jesperson, and another newcomer, 6-8 freshman Darion Atkins, has to sit out Virginia’s first three games for violating team rules.
For now, at least, that leaves Malcolm Brogdon, a 6-5, 215-pound guard from Norcross, Ga. The most heralded member of this recruiting class, Brogdon primarily played shooting guard at Greater Atlanta Christian, where he was Georgia’s “Mr. Basketball” last season, but Bennett plans to use him at the point as well.
Judging by his college debut, Brogdon may be versatile enough — and talented enough — to play handle both positions. In UVa’s 75-38 rout of South Carolina State, he came off the bench to total 9 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 turnovers and 1 steal in 22 minutes.
Brogdon replaced shooting guard KT Harrell at times and point guard Jontel Evans at others Sunday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena. He made 1 of 2 shots from 3-point range and had the game’s most memorable assist. With about 13 minutes remaining, Brogdon spotted Assane Sene open near the basket. From the top of the key, Brogdon fired a pass underneath to the 7-0 senior, whose dunk capped a 24-0 run for the Wahoos.
“He did some good things,” Bennett said of Brogdon. “I told him at times he was a little casual, but our team at times was casual. I think sometimes when you get a lead like that, it’s kind of hard to know what to do. But you saw a few of the things where he’ll get in the gap and find people, and he’s very powerful. I was pleased with some of the things he did. Defensively he’s got to get more active, but you certainly like his strength and his feel. Those are nice attributes that he possesses, and that will hold up against a lot of people.”
Evans and Sammy Zeglinski split time at point guard for the ‘Hoos last season. Zeglinski, a fifth-year senior, is out with a sprained ankle, though, and the meant more time at the point for Brogdon against SC State.
“Malcolm has that point guard sense,” sophomore swingman Joe Harris said, “and like you saw today he’s great driving down the lane and dishing it off. But he can also knock down shots as well. He’s a really versatile guard.”
Evans, a 5-11 junior, ranks among the ACC’s best on-the-ball defenders, and his strength and quickness make it difficult for opponents to keep him out of the lane with the ball.
“The first time I played against Jontel in practice,” Brogdon said, “he destroyed me, just running circles around me. I just had to learn how to guard him, and I’m still learning how to guard him. He still gets me.”
Moreover, Brogdon said, being guarded by Evans is “equally as tough as guarding him, because he’s a great defender. He really is. He’s the key to why I can handle the ball against pressure and guard little fast guards.”
During the first semester in 2010-11, Evans’ suffocating defense was a frequent source of frustration for freshman point guard Billy Baron (who later transferred to Rhode Island). Evans goes at Brogdon with the same intensity.
“I got to. That’s how they’re going to get better,” Evans said Sunday after contributing 8 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds and 1 blocked shot in 29 minutes.
“And he makes it tough on me. He’s a big guard, strong. He’s not built like a freshman. It’s very competitive between me and him. We just try to make each other better.”
For Brogdon, trying to meet Bennett’s defensive standards has “been the toughest part by far” of the transition to college hoops. “It’s about being in the gap,” Brogdon said. “It’s about boxing out when a shot goes up. It’s about communicating. Communicating is the biggest thing in our defense, and if you don’t play defense, you won’t play. It’s that simple.”
Of his performance against SC State, Brogdon said, “I definitely think there’s a lot of room for improvement, but I felt OK. I’m just glad we got the win.”
The outcome never really was in doubt Sunday. The Bulldogs (0-1) scored the game’s first basket, but UVa led 33-18 at the break. After SC State made it 33-20 in the first minute of the second half, the ‘Hoos ran off 24 unanswered points, and that was that.
“We just kind of got in a groove there,” Harris said. “We were knocking down some shots, and the momentum just kind of built on itself.”
Harris hit three treys and scored 11 points in the first half. Harrell, by contrast, made only 1 of 6 shots from the floor in the first 20 minutes. Later, though, when the Bulldogs switched to box-and-one designed to shut down Harris, Harrell took full advantage of his increased opportunities. In a span of about 90 seconds, the 6-4 sophomore knocked down three 3-pointers.
“In the second half, when we came back out, they were kind of doing a little funky defense, where one guy followed me around,” Harris said. “But obviously everybody else stepped up and hit open shots.”
Bennett said: “Offensively, it’s always nice when you see that ball going in, and it was good that KT picked up the slack from the 3-point line, and then we got some easy ones as well.”
Harris and Harrell led UVa with 13 points apiece. Brogdon was next with 9, and three Cavaliers scored 8 each: Evans, sophomore forward Akil Mitchell and fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott, who also had a game-high 15 rebounds.
For Scott, who was limited to 10 games last season because of an ankle injury, it was his first appearance for the Cavaliers in nearly 11 months.
“So the adrenaline was going,” Scott said. “I just felt like a rookie again, honestly, until that first TV timeout.”
Scott went to the bench with 10:52 to play and did not return. The ‘Hoos host Winthrop on Tuesday night and then leave Thursday morning for the U.S. Virgin Islands, where they’ll play in the Paradise Jam tournament. Bennett said he opted to rest Scott once No. 23 “shook the rust off” against SC State.
“It’s good to have him out there,” Bennett said.
With Atkins out, UVa had only four scholarship post players available for the opener: Scott, Sene, Mitchell and James Johnson. The 6-9 Johnson enrolled at Virginia in 2010 but redshirted last season. With 4:42 left in the first half Sunday, he made his first appearance as a Cavalier, entering to applause from the crowd of 8,954.
In 13 minutes, Johnson did not attempt a shot from the floor, but he was 6 for 8 from the line and added 3 rebounds and an assist.
“James did some good things,” Bennett said. “As he continues to play, I think he’ll get better. He’s aggressive and rugged …. He got to the line, and again I think the more James can get in those situations and get the reactions a little quicker and get used to the game speed, he’ll get better and better. I keep thinking long-range with these young guys, because I know they’ve got to get the experience, but what they’ll be two months from now, a year from now, is going to be good. So I just keep encouraging them and challenging them and holding them accountable.”