By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the end of practice Tuesday afternoon, Tony Bennett gathered his players around him on the main court at John Paul Jones Arena. Moments later came a burst of applause for Mike Scott and Jontel Evans, who, Bennett told his team, had been honored by the ACC the day before.
Scott, a 6-8 fifth-year senior, received the second-most votes in All-ACC balloting. He’s the first men’s basketball player from UVa to make the all-conference first team since Sean Singletary in 2008.
Evans, a 5-11 junior, became the first UVa player since Adam Hall in 2001 to be named to the ACC’s All-Defensive team.
For Scott, who leads the Cavaliers in scoring and rebounding, such recognition is nothing new. After all, he’s been named ACC player of the week four times this season, a UVa record. Defensive standouts, however, rarely make headlines, and so the Wahoos’ starting point guard was thrilled to get the news Monday.
“It was a huge honor,” Evans said. “I really didn’t know until I started checking my Twitter and I had like a hundred mentions saying, ‘Congratulations.’ It just shook me. It’s been a while since I’ve been part of a huge accolade like that.
“It surprised me, and I’m very honored. I have to give credit to my teammates and especially Coach Bennett. I came in here as a good defender, but playing three years underneath him, he’s made me a great defender, so my props to him.”
At Bethel High School in Hampton, Evans was known on the football field for his offense. He was a star tailback who came off the field when the Bruins were on defense. As a UVa basketball player, defense has been his forte since the day he arrived in Charlottesville.
A chiseled 188-pounder, Evans leads UVa in steals with 48 this season. More significant for a player who has long been able to pressure opponents into turnovers, Evans is much sounder fundamentally now than early in his college career.
“I used to always go for the home run on defense,” he said. “I was always gambling, losing vision. I’m still losing vision, but it’s not as bad as it was when I first got here. When I first came in here, I was a guy that gambled a lot, and that’s what hurt me as a defender and hurt my team as well.”
At Bethel, Evans was able to get away with such risks. “But when I got here,” he said, “guys were just as good as me. I tried to do that, but it was a rude awakening, so I had to learn Coach Bennett’s principles and put that into my defensive game.”
In the Cavaliers’ third season under Bennett, they rank among the nation’s top defensive teams, and Evans’ role on the perimeter is crucial. In some ways, he reminds his coach of Muggsy Bogues, with whom Bennett played on the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.
Bogues, a former Wake Forest great, wasn’t tall, but he was quick and strong. “His nickname was ‘Pocket Hercules,’ ” Bennett recalled recently.
Most people “really couldn’t appreciate how powerful he was,” Bennett said. “Sometimes you don’t think of that, but I think when you have both of those things present, it makes you really effective as an on-ball defender. When Jontel is really focused at keeping a guy in front or just working, he has the ability to do that because of that combination. Unlike other guys, sometimes if they get out of position or something happens where they’re a little late, they’re usually quick enough to cover up a mistake, and they get back in position.”
Like Scott, who’s from Chesapeake, Evans grew up in the state’s Tidewater region. That’s not all they have in common. Before the season, they made a pact: Neither would cut his hair until the ‘Hoos made the NCAA tournament.
Their barbers may soon be able to turn on the clippers. As Selection Sunday approaches, UVa is positioned to advance to the NCAAs for the first time since 2006-07. The ‘Hoos, 22-8 overall, are seeded No. 4 in the ACC tournament, which starts Thursday in Atlanta.
During games, Evans and Scott usually wear their hair in cornrows. Evans was sporting a full afro at practice Tuesday, but he’s hoping to have a new look by this time next week.
“It all depends on Sunday,” Evans said with a smile. “If our name gets called, then the hair comes off.”
How much of it?
“All of it,” Evans said. “I’m going to get a regular haircut, like Darion [Atkins]. Like my first year.”
This has been a memorable season for Evans (7.3 ppg). Not only has he excelled on defense, he leads the ‘Hoos in assists, with 115, and has made significant strides as a scorer, becoming adept at finishing floaters and runners. He also proved recently that he’s comfortable in front of the camera.
“I think I did pretty well,” Evans said of his turn as host of the Cavalier Sports Weekly show. “I just was calm, cool and collected. The guys weren’t there to interrupt me and make me laugh.”
The Cavaliers leave Wednesday afternoon for Atlanta, where they will be one of four teams with first-round byes. UVa will meet No. 5 seed NC State or No. 12 seed Boston College in the second quarterfinal Friday (approximately 2:30 p.m.).
A win would send the ‘Hoos to the ACC semifinals for the first time in what seems an eternity. Not since 1995 has Virginia has played on the Saturday of an ACC tournament.
“We want to change that,” Evans said. “That’s a bad tradition right there. We’re going to go down to Atlanta and try to play on a weekend. This team is very focused. We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs this year, with people transferring, and big-time injuries to big-time players. But we pulled through, and we hung in there, and it’s a clean slate going down to Atlanta.”