Jan. 22, 2012

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The voice, the smile, the presence, the 7-foot frame — all part of what senior center Assane Sene brings to the UVa men’s basketball program — were conspicuously absent Friday and Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena.

While his teammates were preparing for the first of the Cavaliers’ two regular-season games with Virginia Tech, Sene was recovering from surgery to repair a fracture in his right ankle. He suffered the injury Thursday night in Atlanta, late in the first half of No. 15 UVa’s romp over Georgia Tech.

“It’s tough. He’s our voice on defense,” junior point guard Jontel Evans said after practice Saturday night. “He’s a big talker on defense. It just feels weird without him out there.”

Sene, who has started 65 games during his college career, may be on the bench Sunday night when UVa (2-1, 15-2) hosts Virginia Tech (0-4, 11-7) in an ACC game that ESPNU will televise. He’s not expected to play again, however, for about six weeks.

“We’re definitely going to miss him,” said fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott, the Wahoos’ top scorer and rebounder. “He’s just a great team defender. Me, Darion and Akil and everyone else will have to step up.”

In late December, guard KT Harrell and big man James Johnson, reserves who wanted more playing time, left third-year coach Tony Bennett’s program. Their departures left Virginia with nine scholarship players, one of whom, freshman Paul Jesperson, had been redshirting.

Jesperson, a 6-6 swingman, has played in the Cavaliers’ past six games, but Sene’s injury means Bennett has only three post players: Scott, sophomore Akil Mitchell and freshman Darion Atkins.

“We were pretty thin to begin with,” Bennett said Saturday night, “and now we’re even thinner.”

The 239-pound Sene has posted modest averages this season — 4.9 points and 3.7 rebounds — but he leads the ‘Hoos in blocked shots (15) and is an integral part of one of the nation’s best defenses.

“He’d do anything for the team,” Bennett said, “whether it was screening, helping out, verbally communicating. He’d talk a lot. Plus he’s been through the wars. This is a senior we’re talking about. And then there’s his length and size, being 6-11, 7-foot.

“So that’s the hole that’s left. There’s a number of things that are lost: his experience, his size, his willingness to do whatever for the team, his know-how, and certainly his voice.”

With Sene out, the 234-pound Mitchell will make his first ACC start Sunday night. He played 22 minutes against Georgia Tech and pulled down 7 rebounds, a total matched only by Scott that night at Philips Arena.

“It’s been a dream for me to start in the ACC for a while, and getting it against Virginia Tech is huge,” Mitchell said.

A season ago, the ‘Hoos swept their regular-season series with the Hokies. In the second meeting, at JPJ, Mitchell had 4 points and 7 rebounds in 28 minutes. The Cavaliers were without their best big man, Scott, in that game and for most of the 2010-11 season. He played only 10 games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.

“They had to keep going last year when it happened to me,” Scott said. “This year we’re going to have to keep going too. We still have more games to play.”

Evans said: “We went through it with Mike last year. Going through it again with Assane, guys just have to come together and step their games up. Other guys that get the opportunity just have to step up, be ready to face that challenge.”

The roles of Mitchell and Atkins, two of the team’s most explosive athletes, figure to grow significantly. Through Virginia’s first 17 games, the 6-8, 234-pound Mitchell averaged 3.5 points, 4.1 rebounds and 17.9 minutes. He’s shooting 52.1 percent from the floor but only 39.1 percent from the line.

The 6-8, 222-pound Atkins has been playing about nine minutes a game and averages 3.0 points and 2.7 rebounds. He’s shooting 66.7 percent from the floor and 61.5 percent from the line.

“This is a great opportunity, certainly, for Darion to get more experience,” Bennett said. “But we have only three [post players] for those two spots.”

It will be imperative, then, for UVa’s big men to avoid foul trouble.

“They’re going to have to be as sound and smart as they can as defenders,” Bennett said, “and try to eliminate picking up any of the mental-breakdown fouls or the cheap ones.”

Mitchell said: “You gotta be really smart about that. I was talking to Coach [Jason] Williford, and he was like, ‘Just try to be smart about how aggressive you are, and definitely don’t pick up any cheap fouls.’ ”

Virginia Tech, the only ACC team without a conference victory, has lost four straight games since winning at Oklahoma State on New Year’s Eve. The Hokies don’t have much size — 6-8 senior Victor Davila is the only true post player in Seth Greenberg’s starting lineup — but they have several dangerous 3-point shooters, including guards Erick Green, Dorenzo Hudson, Robert Brown and forward Jarell Eddie.

“Understand, their 4-man is a guard,” Williford reminded Virginia’s players in practice Saturday.

That would be Eddie, a 6-7, 209-pound sophomore who spends most of his time on the perimeter. He’s shooting a torrid 50.8 percent from 3-point range. Tech’s best player, however, is its starting point guard.

Green, a 6-4, 185-pound junior from Winchester, leads the Hokies in scoring, assists, steals and free-throw percentage.

“He’s the heart and soul of their team, their best player, and I’m just looking forward to the challenge,” said Evans, a relentless defender who’ll be matched against Green.

This will be the Cavaliers’ first home game since Jan. 7, when a season-high 11,283 fans saw them open ACC play with a 52-51 win over Miami. A capacity crowd is expected Sunday night at the 14,593-seat John Paul Jones Arena.

“It’s going to be live,” Scott said. “You know how it is when we play Virginia Tech home or away. It’s going to be crazy.”

Bennett would prefer to have a full complement of players, but he knows injuries are part of the game.

“You have to adjust,” Bennett said. “It’s not ideal, of course, and I’m really sad for Assane, but the encouraging thing is 1, he’s helped us to get to this point, and 2, there’s a chance that possibly he could be back. Again, that’s all depending on how his healing goes and where he’s at. But I know how hard he’s worked to be on the floor and be a part of it.”

Scott visited Sene on Friday and again Saturday night. The affable Senegal native is very much in his teammates’ thoughts, and they’re eager for him to get back on the court this season.

“I’m going to stay on him and makes sure he gets his rehab,” Scott said, “and he’ll be fine.”

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