By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In a five-on-five drill Wednesday at John Paul Jones Arena, UVa assistant coach Jason Williford caught a pass in the paint and went up for a shot. Sophomore forward Akil Mitchell swatted the basketball away, and Williford tumbled to the court, where the former Virginia standout lay for a few moments before wearily getting to his feet.
Seated nearby, Assane Sene tried not to laugh.
“That was a foul,” Williford said to Sene. “You saw it, right?”
Sene stayed silent, but his smile betrayed his answer. Asked later about the play, Sene said, “Coach Willy, he’s funny. I just think that he was tired and called that a foul, but there was no foul.”
Six days after having surgery to repair a fracture in his right ankle, Sene returned to practice Wednesday, and as usual he was in a good mood. He’s a long way from the returning to the court — UVa hopes to have him back in the lineup in early March — but the 7-0, 239-pound senior’s presence at JPJ lifted the spirits of his coaches and teammates, who gravitated to Sene during practice breaks.
“I’m feeling better,” Sene said, extra-long crutches at his side. “Go to practice, watch my boys doing their work. It’s great to be back in here watching them.”
Sene, a native of Senegal, started the Cavaliers’ first 17 games this season, 15 of which they won. Game No. 17 was last Thursday night in Atlanta, where Sene injured his ankle late in the first half when he landed awkwardly after challenging a shot by a Georgia Tech guard.
“To be honest, right when it happened, I knew that it was something serious, because I’ve sprained my ankle before,” Sene recalled Wednesday.
“That night, we put ice and stuff on it, but I couldn’t put any weight on it. And when I went home that night and I was in my bed, I was like, ‘No, man, I don’t think this is only a sprain.’ ”
X-rays taken last Friday morning revealed a fracture. Later that day Dr. David Diduch, the team’s orthopedic surgeon, inserted several screws and a plate into Sene’s ankle.
“I didn’t want to waste any time,” said Sene, who’s expected to be sidelined about six weeks.
This is his first serious injury, but “it could have been worse,” Sene said. It could have been season-ending, he knows. And so he remains upbeat as he embarks on his rehabilitation.
“I just put everything in God’s hand and just stay strong, because that’s the only thing I can do right now,” Sene said. “Because crying or thinking about it or whatever, it’s not going to make it heal quicker, right?”
At 9 p.m. Thursday, No. 19 UVa (2-2, 15-3) hosts ACC foe Boston College (2-3, 7-12) at JPJ. This will be the Wahoos’ second game without Sene. The first was a 47-45 loss to visiting Virginia Tech on Sunday night.
With Sene watching from a seat behind the home bench, the ‘Hoos missed 31 field-goal attempts against the Hokies, including 13 of 14 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Sene, who leads UVa with 15 blocked shots, is averaging 4.9 points and 3.7 rebounds this season. Those aren’t All-ACC numbers, but Sene contributes in ways not always apparent on the stat sheet, especially at the defensive end, and he might well have made a difference against VPI.
“It’s always hard to watch,” said Sene, who has started 65 games as a Cavalier. “When you’re a basketball player, you always want to play, you don’t want to watch. On the bench watching, I learned a lot. But most of the things that I learned are about my teammates, seeing how I can help them to win without me, because I’m going to be out for a little bit. And after I watched the game, I saw things that I need to share with them.”
With Sene out, Virginia coach Tony Bennett has only three post players: Mitchell, Mike Scott and Darion Atkins, all of whom are listed at 6-8.
Scott, a fifth-year senior, is a candidate for ACC player of the year and leads the Cavaliers in scoring and rebounding. Sene, not surprisingly, directs most of his suggestions to Mitchell, who made his first ACC start against Virginia Tech, and Atkins, a freshman. Mitchell and Atkins are probably the team’s most athletic players.
“I talk to them a lot,” Sene said, “because they’re young, so they definitely need me to tell them what I’ve seen and stuff. So I’ve been talking to them since [the Virginia Tech game], and I think that’s going to be help them.”
Neither Mitchell nor Atkins distinguished himself against the Hokies. In 25 minutes, Mitchell totaled 2 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist and 1 steal. Atkins grabbed 4 rebounds in six scoreless minutes off the bench but missed his only shot from the floor.
“Anything we can get out of them from an offensive standpoint is big for us,” Bennett said Monday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference.
Virginia Tech’s starting power forward, 6-7 sophomore Jarell Eddie, is a dangerous 3-point shooter who operates primarily on the perimeter, so Bennett went with a smaller lineup for much of the second half Sunday night.
BC’s starting power forward, 6-8 freshman Ryan Anderson, has attempted 59 3-pointers this season. Don’t be surprised, then, to see Bennett surround Scott with four perimeter players again at times Thursday night.
“It’s just a game-time decision and a personnel-based decision,” Bennett said. “We haven’t done that a lot this year, because when we’ve had Assane … we’ve had a pretty good [frontcourt] rotation. But with our numbers being shortened, you have to consider that at times. It just depends on who’s in the game, what’s going on, really, at both ends of the floor.”