Jan. 31, 2012

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — At some point in the first half, probably around the second media timeout, No. 2 will check in for the UVa men’s basketball team Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena.

Whether Paul Jesperson plays in the second half will depend on how the ACC game between No. 16 Virginia (4-2, 17-3) and Clemson (3-3, 11-9) unfolds. “I fly by the seat of my pants in the second half,” third-year coach coach Tony Bennett said with a smile Monday. “You see where we’re at and what’s going on.”

That Jesperson, a freshman from Merrill, Wis., is even part of the Cavaliers’ rotation at this stage of the season is something of a surprise. In November, Virginia’s coaching staff and Jesperson agreed it would make sense for him to redshirt this season, and the 6-6, 197-pound swingman watched the first 11 games from the bench.

Then came the departures of 6-9 redshirt freshman James Johnson and 6-4 sophomore KT Harrell, each of whom left UVa shortly after the team returned Dec. 22 from a trip to the Pacific Northwest. Suddenly the Wahoos, with only eight scholarship players who had seen time, were severely undermanned, and Jesperson had a decision to make.

Before the Christmas break, Jesperson recalled Monday, the coaches raised the possibility of his playing this season, but they “didn’t really get into detail with it, said it was up to me. And then when I got back into Charlottesville after break, I just went up to Coach and said, ‘I’ll take [the redshirt] off if you think that’s best.’ ”

Before doing so, Jesperson said, he had talked to each of the team’s seniors — Mike Scott, Sammy Zeglinski and Assane Sene — and “they thought I could help the team, too. So that was a big thing. Anything I can do to help those guys out, I will, because this is their last go-around.”

He also sought the advice of his roommate and best friend at UVa, 6-5 freshman Malcolm Brogdon.

“I told Paul to do what the team needs him to do first, and then also to do what’s best for him, because he wants to make sure he makes the right decision,” Brogdon said Monday. “But if the team needs him, then he needs to play.”

The ‘Hoos needed him, and Jesperson embraced the opportunity.

“I think he’s really stepped up like no one thought he would and showed that he can play with us this year,” Brogdon said.

Jesperson made his college debut Dec. 27 and scored 5 points in 15 minutes against Maryland-Eastern Shore. He’s the second perimeter player off the bench for UVa, after Brogdon, and his appearances since the UMES game have ranged in length from one minute (at LSU) to 14 minutes (at Georgia Tech). He scored a season-high 6 points against the Yellow Jackets.

“At times he’s really given us a lift, and I think he’s becoming more solid defensively,” said Bennett, another native of Wisconsin. “That’s the one thing that has been a pleasant surprise, and hopefully that’ll continue. At times he’s shown that he’s a first-year that didn’t have the advantage of playing those first 11 games he missed. But his minutes have been valuable. His feel [for the game] has showed, and I’ve been pleased with him. Certainly I think there’s a lot more development to come, and we’ll see the best of him as time goes on.”

Jesperson said: “Those first couple games when I got in there, I had a lot of nerves and things seemed to be going pretty fast. But now I think I’ve adapted to it and things are coming along better. Defensively I think I’m doing better, so I think I’ve adapted well.

In UVa’s 61-58 loss at Duke, Jesperson went backdoor and threw down an emphatic dunk, a display of athleticism that elicited a flood of text messages and phone calls from friends back in Wisconsin.

“A lot of people hit me up when I did that,” Jesperson said with a smile. “They were surprised. It was fun to hear from some of those people.”

At Merrill High School, where he was a two-time all-state performer, Jesperson became known for his 3-point shooting, not his dunking. He’s only 3 for 15 from beyond the arc as a Cavalier, but that doesn’t worry him.

“Those shots are going to fall,” Jesperson said. “I’m a shooter. That’s what I do. I’ve put in enough reps, so I’m confident they’re going to fall.”

In high school, he rarely came off the court, and if he missed a shot or turned the ball over, Jesperson knew he would soon have an opportunity to redeem himself. At UVa, he’s averaging 7.7 minutes a game.

“It was kind of tough in the beginning, but it’s just about accepting roles,” Jesperson said. “Everyone has their own on the team. For some people it’s going to be to come in and do things defensively. Some it’s going to be to shoot. Mine’s just to come in, hit shots when they’re there and be good defensively. I’m going to support that role and hopefully keep working to get a bigger role.”

Bennett said: “I think his minutes are very valuable for him and for us, now and as it unfolds for him down the road. He got to play against Georgia Tech a lot of minutes. He’s gotten to play in big-time settings, tight games against NC State and Duke, and he’s part of the rotation, so it’s good for him.”

The games themselves, Jesperson said, are infinitely more enjoyable as a participant.

“It was kind of hard just sitting there knowing that you weren’t going to play with that redshirt on,” he said. “But now when you come in here and know you’re going to get in the game, it’s a lot of fun.”

WORTH NOTING: One of Clemson’s starters, 6-9 junior Milton Jennings, did not make the trip to Charlottesville with the team. Jennings, a former McDonald’s All-American, has been suspended indefinitely for academic reasons. He’s averaging 8.9 points and 5.4 rebounds this season.

Jennings is the No. 3 rebounder for a team that ranks eighth in the ACC in rebounding margin (plus-2.3). Virginia is third in the league, at plus-5.8, even after getting outrebounded 42-25 in a one-point win over NC State.

Richard Howell, a 6-8, 250-pound junior, led the Wolfpack with 18 rebounds Saturday night. No UVa player had more than 5 boards.

“You certainly have to be as good as you can be going to get the ball, blocking out, having a nose for it, and Howell, he looked like a man amongst boys, really, most of the game,” Bennett said Monday on the ACC coaches’ teleconferences.

There’s more to rebounding than proper technique, Bennett added. “There’s a point where you’ve got to do that, and then you’ve got to go pursue the ball and come up with it. That’s where he outworked us … We were just a half-step behind and not ready.”

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