By Jeff White
ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — Little has gone as planned for the UVa men’s basketball team since it landed in the tropics Thursday afternoon.
The Cavaliers were supposed to be staying on this island’s north end but, because of problems at their assigned hotel, instead found themselves on the east end, not an especially easy or short drive from the University of the Virgin Islands.
That’s where the 12th annual Paradise Jam tournament will be played, Friday through Monday. Virginia’s first game is Friday at 6 p.m. Eastern against TCU (2-0). The Cavaliers’ third-year coach, Tony Bennett, has been forced to improvise since his team’s arrival in St. Thomas, but he’s staying positive.
“We’re so blessed to be here in a beautiful place like this to play ball that you just roll with it,” Bennett said late Thursday at UVI’s 3,500-seat Sports and Fitness Center.
“We’ve had some travel difficulties. That happens.”
The Wahoos (2-0) ran through a spirited workout that lasted about 90 minutes Thursday night. Before Bennett and his assistants took over, strength-and-conditioning coach Mike Curtis loosened the players up with his customary array of stretching exercises.
“Wake up, wake up,” Curtis told them. “Get a little life.”
They did as instructed, and that pleased Bennett. “I wanted to have a good, brisk workout and get the guys on the same page and not lose ground,” he said.
“You can’t just look at it as, ‘We’re just coming over here to get loose and put up some shots.’ There’s purpose to it, and hopefully it carries over [to the TCU game].”
Fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski, who missed UVa’s first two games with a sprained right ankle, participated in practice Thursday and is likely to play against TCU. That would be a significant addition for a team that had only eight scholarship players available against South Carolina State and Winthrop.
With Zeglinski out, junior Jontel Evans and freshman Malcolm Brogdon have been splitting time at point guard. Brogdon, like Zeglinski, also can play shooting guard.
“It’s nice to see Sammy out here,” Bennett said at one point during the practice.
After an afternoon that included an occasionally harrowing ride in open-air taxis from the airport to the new hotel, Bennett’s players were happy to get on the court Thursday night.
“We got in late and had problems with the hotels and everything,” forward Mike Scott said, “but when all is said and done, it’s down to a business trip. We came here to play and win some games.”
The UVa-TCU winner will face Drexel or Norfolk State in a semifinal Sunday night. The other teams in the field are Marquette, Winthrop, Drake and Mississippi.
“They’ve got some good teams in the tournament,” said Scott, a fifth-year senior who leads the ‘Hoos in scoring (13 ppg) and rebounding (11.5 rpg).
“If you want to make a name for yourself, you’ve got to win it all. So it’s definitely important for us.”
The team hotel offers stunning views of the surrounding hills and the Caribbean. It can be difficult to focus on hoops “when you come to a place like this with all the sights and scenes,” Scott acknowledged, “but I’m old, so I’m used to it.”
TCU’s starters include senior point guard Hank Thorns (9.5 ppg, 6.5 apg), who began his college career at Virginia Tech. The Horned Frogs’ freshmen include point guard Kyan Anderson (5.5 ppg, 4.5 apg), a former UVa recruiting target.
In its wins over Florida Gulf Coast and Austin College, TCU forced 64 turnovers. Virginia devoted a good portion of its practice Thursday night to preparing for the Horned Frogs’ full-court pressure.
“They’re very athletic,” Bennett said.
This will be the first men’s basketball game between UVa and TCU, a Mountain West school that’s headed to the Big 12 next year.