Nov. 21, 2011

By Jeff White

ST. THOMAS — He’ll go through warmups with his teammates this afternoon and be in uniform on the UVa bench once the game starts at the University of the Virgin Islands’ Sports and Fitness Center. Barring an unlikely turn of events, however, freshman Paul Jesperson won’t play in the Cavaliers’ Paradise Jam finale — or in any other games this season.

And that, Jesperson said Saturday at the team hotel on this Caribbean island, is a situation to which he’s still adjusting.

“I don’t think I remember when I haven’t played games,” said Jesperson, a 6-6, 197-pound swingman from the small town of Merrill, Wis.

“It’s a little bit tough not being able to play, not being able to go out there and help your team. But I’m just trying to stay focused on getting better in the offseason and being able to come back and hopefully help the team next year.”

Jesperson’s offseason unofficially started on the eve of UVa’s opener this month. That’s when he and the Cavaliers’ coaching staff decided it would make sense for Jesperson to redshirt his first year, as 6-9 James Johnson did in 2010-11.

“It’s hard,” third-year coach Tony Bennett said of redshirting. “You want it instantly, but I think for Paul the upside is worth waiting for.”

During the decision-making process, Jesperson said, “I probably talked to 10 people that were real close to me about this, and they all said the same thing: that if you approach this redshirt year the right way, it’s going to have a lot of good benefits for you in the future. So that’s why I chose to do it.”

Johnson’s advice?

“He said that if you choose the redshirt, you’re going to get a lot better in that year,” Jesperson said. “So that was the main decision for me, and I think it’s going to be benefit me a lot.”

Virginia has played twice in the Paradise Jam, losing to TCU 57-55 on Friday night and beating Drexel 49-35 on Saturday afternoon. UVa (3-1) meets Drake (3-1) today at 3:30 p.m. Eastern. The Cavaliers head home Tuesday and won’t play again until Friday night, when Bennett’s alma mater, Green Bay, visits John Paul Jones Arena.

“My role right now is to come into practice and try to bust these guys every day to get them better,” Jesperson said. “My role is to be as big a cheerleader as I can during the games and to work my butt off this offseason so I can come back and help them next year.”

Like many of the elite players who have come out of Wisconsin — a left-handed point guard named Tony Bennett comes to mind — Jesperson has a sweet shooting stroke and outstanding court sense. And Bennett admits he may be tempted at times this season to play Jesperson, who has steadily improved since enrolling at UVa in June.

“But it’s just he’s not quite ready yet in terms of the physicality, and he needs to get a little better with the defense,” Bennett said after his team’s practice Sunday night at Antilles School. “But again, his instincts and his feel and his ability to shoot it have really stood out, and it’s just a matter of time.”

The one-on-one sessions with Mike Curtis, UVa’s strength-and-conditioning coach for basketball, began soon after Jesperson decided to redshirt.

“He definitely wants me to gain weight and get stronger, but I think another thing we’re really trying to work on is my lateral quickness,” Jesperson said. “So we’re really attacking that area, and I think it’s going to help.”

Curtis said: “He’ll train every game day. We’ll lift, we’ll do movement training. Basically this is his offseason, so he’s had an extended offseason. I don’t take into consideration games or practices when I’m actually drawing up the training plan. It’s just about: This is where we want to get, this is how we’re going to get there, and we don’t deviate from that plan.”

Ideally, Curtis said, Jesperson would weigh around 205 pounds by the start of next season, “but it’s still about his ability to move and cover ground and move from Point A to Point B. But with his work ethic, we’ll be able to get there.”

UVa’s options on the wing this season include sophomores Joe Harris and KT Harrell, freshman Malcolm Brogdon and fifth-year senior Sammy Zeglinski, so Jesperson probably would have struggled to break into the rotation. The Cavaliers’ recruits for 2012-13 include swingman Justin Anderson, so Jesperson won’t be guaranteed significant playing time next season, either. But he figures to be better prepared for the rigors of ACC ball.

“You never know when your time’s going to come,” Bennett said. “For Paul, could it be his first year playing? Sure. Could it be his second year? All I know is when he’s an upperclassman and he’s got years 4 and 5 in his deal, he’s going to be really thankful that he redshirted, because I think he’s going to have a very good career.”

Already at UVa, Bennett has coached two players who struggled early in their college careers — Jerome Meyinsse and Mustapha Farrakhan — before blossoming as upperclassmen.

He wishes, Bennett said, that all “young people could, when they come in, have a long-range picture, because it doesn’t happen right away.”

Bennett’s connections in Wisconsin helped the Wahoos land Jesperson, whose other finalists were Notre Dame and Minnesota. Kurt Soderberg coached Jesperson at Merrill High School. Soderberg’s brother, Brad, played for Bennett’s father, Dick, at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and later coached under the elder Bennett at the University of Wisconsin.

Brad Soderberg was named interim coach at Wisconsin after Dick Bennett retired early in the 2000-01 season, and Tony Bennett was one of Soderberg’s assistants.

His transition from Wisconsin to Virginia, Jesperson said, proved challenging initially. “I’ve never been this far away from home, so this summer was kind of hard, with not many people being in school. But then once school started, it all got a lot easier. I started getting closer bonds with people on the team, and it started to be a lot more fun.”

He has formed an especially strong friendship with Brogdon, who’s from the Atlanta area. They room together at UVa, and one has rarely been seen in St. Thomas without the other nearby.

AAU basketball allowed Jesperson to visit many parts of the United States, but he’d never seen anything like St. Thomas before arriving here Thursday afternoon.

“This is beautiful here,” Jesperson said. “Even though I’m not playing, I’m able to travel with the team, still work out with them and then see a place like this. It’s truly a blessing.”

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