By Jeff White
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — When he enrolled at the University of Virginia last June, Darion Atkins was one of five big men in the men’s basketball program and figured to play a minor role as a freshman. He’s now one of three.
“Things are going really fast,” Atkins said.
James Johnson, a 6-9 redshirt freshman whom Atkins had passed in UVa’s frontcourt rotation, left the team in late December and later transferred to San Diego State. Then 7-0 senior Assane Sene, the Cavaliers’ starting center, hurt his right ankle last month against Georgia Tech.
Sene, who needed surgery to repair the fracture in his ankle, could return to the court by the end of the regular season. For now, though, third-year coach Tony Bennett is working with three post players: fifth-year Mike Scott, sophomore Akil Mitchell and Atkins. Each stands 6-8.
“The coaches, they’ve told me, and I know for myself now, that I have to step up,” Atkins said. “Things have changed really fast.”
At times since Sene’s injury, Virginia has gone with a smaller lineup: four perimeter players plus a big man, usually the 6-8, 237-pound Scott, an All-America candidate who leads the team in scoring and rebounding. Bennett may not have that luxury this afternoon.
At 1 o’clock, at the Donald L. Tucker Center in Tallahassee, No. 16 Virginia (5-2 ACC, 18-3 overall) meets No. 21 Florida State (6-1, 15-6), one of the nation’s tallest teams. The Seminoles’ big men include 7-0 Jon Kreft, 6-11 senior Xavier Gibson, 6-10 senior Bernard James and 6-8 Okaro White. Atkins has never faced a frontcourt as formidable as FSU’s, but he’s eager to do so.
“I actually like playing against bigger guys, especially guys that are taller than me,” Atkins said. “I just like the challenge.”
Virginia is coming off a 65-61 win over Clemson, whose reserves include 7-2, 255-pound Catalin Baciu. Atkins, a graduate of Landon School in Bethesda, Md., came off the bench to contribute 4 points, 2 rebounds and 2 blocked shots against the Tigers. His only complaint: He didn’t get to match up against Baciu more.
“I was a little frustrated when I kept coming out, because I really wanted to defend him,” Atkins said. “I don’t know. It’s just something about [taller players]. I just feel like I’m quicker than them and I can get my position on them defensively and, if I have the chance, offensively.”
Atkins, who’s from Clinton, Md., had to sit out the first three games of the season for violating team rules, and Bennett didn’t play him in the either of the next two games, wins over Drexel and Drake, respectively, at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Starting with Virginia’s Nov. 25 victory over Green Bay at John Paul Jones Arena, however, Atkins has appeared in every game. He’s averaging 3.1 points, 2.6 rebounds and 9.4 minutes. He’s second on the team in blocks, with 11, and is shooting 65.5 percent from the floor.
His ACC highs: 6 points (against Boston College), 4 rebounds (against Duke and Virginia Tech), 2 blocks (against Georgia Tech and Clemson) and 17 minutes (against Georgia Tech).
“I think he’s done very well,” UVa assistant coach Jason Williford said. “Coming from Landon, he didn’t see the stiffest competition, though it’s gotten better over the years. Very seldom did he go up against anybody his size.”
When he joined what was then a crowded frontcourt, Atkins said, his expectations were modest.
“Just trying to get whatever minutes that I could,” he said, “whatever minutes that were given to me and just being able to come out and play defense, listen to what the coaches told me to do, and just play my role and not try to do anything outside of that.”
Of his 19 field goals as a Cavalier, most have come on putbacks and dunks. But Atkins’ offensive game is expanding. He hit a baseline jumper against Boston College on Jan. 26 and a jump-hook against Clemson on Tuesday night.
“I don’t know if I will get the ball offensively a lot, but Coach Bennett has asked me a couple times if I’ve felt comfortable down there,” Atkins said. “He said that he saw me post up a few times in a couple games, and he asked me if I was comfortable doing that, and I was like, ‘Yeah, of course. I just need to be able to get the ball.’
“He said, ‘OK, I’ll tell the guys to start trusting you a little bit more and stuff like that.’ So we’ll see. But if I ever got the chance, especially against guys bigger than me, I would just use my speed and my patience to get around them and get the shot.”
He weighed 211 pounds when he arrived at UVa. He’s up to 225, Atkins said, “and I’ve been getting stronger. I feel it in the weight room, because when I first got here it was a struggle.”
As Atkins, who has a 7-foot-1 wingspan, continues to fill out his frame, he’ll be able to do more in the low post. Williford said Atkins also must improve on the defensive end, where Bennett’s standards are especially high.
“He’s got to get used to being continuous, making second-, third-, fourth-effort plays,” Williford said. “He’s been able to get away with just blocking shots at the rim, where we need him to show on ball screens, show on off-ball screens and then still block shots. And then at the end of the day, go rebound the ball.”
It’s not uncommon at UVa practices to hear Bennett challenging Atkins to raise his effort level and sharpen his focus. Williford, a former UVa standout, stays on Atkins, too.
“I think I’m also the bad cop,” Williford said with a smile. “It’s just my nature. But at the end of the day I let Darion know that we wouldn’t be on him that hard if we didn’t think he could be really good. And I think he’s embraced that. In fact, I think that’s probably the only way he gets it. I think you have to be hard on him, or he’ll coast. And we’ve kept our thumb on him, and he’s been good about that.”