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By Jeff White
jwhite@virginia.edu

CHARLOTTESVILLE — His left thumb is sore again, but that’s not the cause of his recent struggles on the basketball court, UVa senior Assane Sene insisted Monday afternoon. He admitted, though, that an explanation for his dip in production eludes him.

“To be honest, I can’t tell,” Sene said after practice at John Paul Jones Arena. “I just keep doing the same thing I was doing last year, the same thing I was doing in the offseason. I don’t really exactly know what happened.”

The 7-0, 239-pound left-hander, known to his teammates and coaches as Zu, is coming off a game in which he had 3 points and 2 rebounds (and no blocked shots) in 24 minutes. More troubling to Sene, a native of Senegal, were his defensive lapses in UVa’s 52-51 win over ACC rival Miami at JPJ.

“He had a couple uncharacteristic breakdowns that he usually doesn’t have,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said Monday, “and I know he prides himself in those areas.”

Sene is known for his perpetually positive demeanor, and he’s determined not to let his slump get to him.

“I was a little bit frustrated maybe a couple weeks ago, but now I’m feeling better,” he said. “I just know I gotta keep working and be ready for the game.

“It happens, man. I’ve got to be stronger. This is when I need to be stronger and play tougher. Last year I started a little bit low then finished high. This year it’s kind of like the opposite, but that’s part of the game, and so I’m just going to keep working hard and not worry about it.”

Sene, whose career highs are 15 points, 15 rebounds and 5 blocks, has started 63 games for the Cavaliers. He’s never been an offensive force, but he scored at least 7 points in each of the Wahoos’ final seven games last season. Moreover, he pulled down at least 5 rebounds in 17 of UVa’s final 25 games.

“He did have a strong finish,” Bennett said, “and did have some games where he was finishing [around the basket] and grabbing some rebounds. I think Assane would tell you right now he’s missed some opportunities, and whether it’s his thumb injury, he’s just been a little out of sync.

“Early in the year, I thought he had some nice post moves and was finishing a little better. These last few games, whether it’s the thumb injury or not, he hasn’t played up to his potential on the offensive end … But my hope is that we’ll find some of those opportunities for him as the season progresses.”

For a UVa team that’s off to its best start in 30 years, Sene is averaging 3.7 rebounds, which ties him for third with 6-6 sophomore Joe Harris. They trail 6-8 senior Mike Scott (8.9) and 6-8 sophomore Akil Mitchell (3.8), the first post player off the bench for the ‘Hoos.

Scott played only 10 games in 2010-11 before an ankle injury ended his season. As a fifth-year senior, he’s emerged as an ACC-player-of-the-year candidate. Is Scott gobbling up rebounds that would otherwise go to Sene?

“Who knows?” Sene said. “But this season just started. That’s also the reason why I’m not frustrated or anything. Anything can happen. I might end up scoring or averaging a double-double. Who knows? The only thing I just gotta keep doing is not get frustrated or discouraged about the game. I just gotta let it come and know it’s going to come only if I keep working.”

As a junior, Sene averaged 5.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots and shot 52.7 percent from the floor. He’s averaging 5.1 points again this season, but his rebounds and blocks (0.9) are down, as is his shooting percentage (48.2).

Early in his UVa career, Sene played through a painful thumb injury that limited his effectiveness. He recently re-injured his left thumb, but it’s “feeling all right,” Sene said Monday. “It still bothers me a little bit, but I’m fine. It’s not that bad.”

Virginia, which moved up to No. 16 in The Associated Press poll released Monday, leads the ACC in scoring defense and ranks third in field-goal percentage defense. Sene’s presence is felt most at the end of the court. Against LSU on Jan. 2, he had only 4 points and 2 boards, but his steal in the final minute helped UVa prevail 57-52 in Baton Rouge.

“He’s very valuable to us,” Bennett said. “He’s plugging gaps, he’s rotating, he’s communicating on the defensive end … He’s had some terrific games for us where he’s really maybe not shown up in the stats column, but he’s done all those things that make your team defense better.”

Sene said: “It’s not only about rebounding, scoring and blocking shots. I’m doing things that are really helping my team to win, and I’m not going to stop doing those things. People that know basketball, they know what I’m talking about. But people who don’t know, maybe those people, they’re the ones who worry a little bit about my game lately.”

With 2:34 left in Virginia’s ACC opener, Sene hit the floor hard after a collision with Miami guard Durand Scott. He watched the rest of the game from the bench, but Sene said he’ll be back on the court for the Cavaliers’ next test.

The ‘Hoos figure to need him Thursday night. At 9 o’clock, in a game that ESPN will televise, UVa (1-0, 14-1) meets No. 8 Duke (1-0, 13-2) at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils’ big men include the Plumlee brothers, Mason and Miles, each 6-foot-10.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Sene said. “To be honest, I’m looking forward to all these ACC games. It’s a high level of competition, and playing against Duke’s big guys will be good for me. So I’m ready for it, man. I’m ready to go out there and just do what I can do.”

HIGH PRAISE: On the weekly ACC coaches’ teleconference, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski was asked about Virginia’s rise under Bennett, who’s in his third season in Charlottesville.

“He’s an outstanding coach,” Krzyzewski said. “Good guy — really good guy — and good for the game. And [the Cavaliers] know what they’re doing, not just individually, but collectively, on every exchange. And so I think they’re ahead of most teams in our league right now in that regard, and for us, we’re not where they are as far as being instinctively reactive.”

Asked about UVa’s stifling defense, Coach K noted that Bennett’s players “understand their jobs and they play them together. They have each other’s back.

“It’s tough to get in the lane on them. They try to take away the post with the double-team on the low post all the time. The double-team is one thing, but what the other three guys are doing, I think, is where they do a great job. As that trap goes there, the other three react instinctively to where they’re supposed to be. They know their duties and what they’re trying to get accomplished.

“They’re an outstanding defensive team. There are many different ways to play defense. The way they play it is really a beautiful way to play defense. It doesn’t force as many turnovers, but you don’t get many assists and you don’t get many second shots, and it’s tough to get in the lane. You gotta shoot well against them, and you gotta defend them.”

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