By Jeff White
Since entering The Associated Press’ Top 25 last Monday at No. 24, the UVa men’s basketball team has won two games to improve to 10-1, its best start since 2000-01.
The Cavaliers have lost two players, however, and will have to proceed without reserves KT Harrell and James Johnson. In a span of about 24 hours, Harrell and Johnson announced over the weekend that they had left the program and planned to transfer to other schools.
“It’s a different time now, and everybody leaves for different reasons,” third-year coach Tony Bennett said late Christmas night. “I’m a little bit at a loss for words. It’s hard to gauge. It’s frustrating. You know there’s going to be struggles and adversity, and you hope guys will stick with it, but everyone has their reasons why they move on.”
Reason No. 1 for both Harrell and Johnson: playing time.
Harrell, a 6-4 sophomore from Montgomery, Ala., started Virginia’s first five games at shooting guard this season. But after Harrell’s production dipped dramatically, Bennett inserted fifth-year senior Sammy Zeglinski into the starting lineup, and freshman Malcolm Brogdon became the first guard off the bench for the Wahoos.
On UVa’s recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, Harrell played four minutes against Oregon and seven against Seattle. He didn’t score in either game and went 0 for 4 from the floor.
Johnson, a 6-9 redshirt freshman from Wildomar, Calif., didn’t play in either game. Akil Mitchell, a 6-8 sophomore, has been the first post player off the bench for Virginia, followed by 6-8 freshman Darion Atkins, who moved past Johnson in the frontcourt rotation after missing the first three games for violating team rules.
Of the six members of Bennett’s first recruiting class, only two remain: Mitchell and 6-6 sophomore Joe Harris, the team’s second-leading scorer. Of the four who have departed, only Harrell had started a game for Virginia.
“We treat our kids fairly. We treat them well,” Bennett said. “Playing time’s always a delicate issue. As a coach, you only have 200 minutes to give out. From a basketball standpoint, the hardest thing is not being able to give them opportunities and playing time.
“There’s no reservations I have about the way KT and James were treated in this program, by our coaching staff and our support staff.”
The NCAA allows each Division I men’s team to carry 13 scholarship players per season. Virginia, which began the season with 11, now has nine. One of those nine, freshman Paul Jesperson, had been redshirting, but UVa no longer has that luxury, Bennett said, and the 6-6, 197-pound swingman is expected to play this week. Virginia hosts Maryland-Eastern Shore on Tuesday night and Towson on Friday night.
“If at all possible, we want to get Paul as many minutes as possible before ACC play begins,” Bennett said.
Virginia’s perimeter starters will remain the same: Harris at small forward, Zeglinski at shooting guard and junior Jontel Evans at point guard. The 6-5, 215-pound Brogdon can play all three positions.
“I plan on using Paul kind of how I used KT, quite honestly,” Bennett said. “With KT, we had five guys for the three perimeter spots. We still have five guys for three spots. I just wish Paul had a little experience.”
After a short holiday break, the team reconvened Sunday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena. Before practice, Jesperson approached Bennett and told his coach he was available if needed.
“That makes me proud of him to have that kind of attitude,” Bennett said, “just the fact that he’s willing, 11 games into a year when he was redshirting, to say, ‘If I can help the team, I want to.’ That’s what’s encouraging. That’s the kind of attitude we need.”
Jesperson, who’s from Merrill, Wis., is an excellent outside shooter who passes well and has good court sense.
“He’s a smart player and a team guy,” Bennett said. “I told Paul, ‘Would your fifth year be more productive than your first year? No question. But look at Darion. The experience he’s getting this year will help him next year.’ “
Other options for Bennett include walk-ons Doug Browman and Thomas Rogers. Browman, a 5-11 junior, and Rogers, a 6-6 sophomore, will get more work in practice. So will the two youngest members of the coaching staff: assistants Ron Sanchez and Jason Williford.
“I tell you what, Coach Sanchez and Coach Williford are going to get in really good shape now,” Bennett said with a laugh.
The mood among the players Sunday evening — the Cavaliers’ first practice without Harrell and Johnson — was upbeat, Bennett said. “Kids are resilient. I’m sure they miss those guys, but by the same token, they know it’s really important they stick together. They’re excited about what they can do this season.”
The Cavaliers’ seniors are Scott, Sene and Zeglinski. Each has faced — and overcome — adversity since enrolling at UVa, and now they’re playing key roles for a nationally ranked team.
Had Harrell and Johnson stuck it out, the same thing might have happened to them.
“It’s very difficult to keep 13 guys on scholarship happy,” Bennett said. “Less and less guys are willing to wait their turn. Everybody wants to play right away.
“I thought they fit here in terms of what we were trying to do, but they obviously had other plans and didn’t feel it was in their best interest to stay. Again, if they didn’t want to be here, it’s better for them to leave. We’ve got to try to find guys who fit better and want to be here.”