By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — What hurts worse: ending a season with a narrow defeat or closing with a blowout loss?
Neither feels good, the veterans on the UVa men’s basketball team will tell you. They speak from experience.
In 2010-11, the Cavaliers closed their second season under Tony Bennett with an overtime loss in the ACC tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum. In their first-round game, Virginia had led Miami by 10 points with 40 seconds left in regulation.
A year later, in the Wahoos’ first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007, they lost 71-45 to Florida at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb. It was by far UVa’s most one-sided defeat of the season.
“Last year, losing to Miami that way, it was terrible,” sophomore swingman Joe Harris said Friday in Omaha. “It was a heartbreaking loss. And then today, this is not how you want your last game of the season to be.
“I feel terrible for our seniors, but for us returners, this will be motivation for us in the offseason.”
Memories of their collapse against Miami fueled UVa’s players through the last offseason, driving them to train harder in the gym and in the weight room. The loss to Florida, Bennett’s players believe, will have the same effect.
“I think they’ll learn a lot from this experience going forward,” Sammy Zeglinski said. “They’re just going to be hungry in the offseason and really get after it.”
On a team that finished 22-10 — Virginia’s most victories since 1994-95 — Zeglinski, a 6-1 guard, was one of three seniors. The others were 7-0 center Assane Sene and 6-8 power forward Mike Scott, the first Cavalier to make the All-ACC first team since guard Sean Singletary in 2008.
Sene’s final college season effectively ended Jan. 19, when he fractured his right ankle against Georgia Tech. With Sene in the lineup, the ‘Hoos were 15-2. Without him, they lost more games than they won.
Still, the Cavaliers at least have experience playing without Sene. Replacing Scott, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, is likely to prove more difficult. Akil Mitchell, a 6-8 sophomore who moved into the starting lineup after Sene got hurt, averaged 4.1 points this season. Darion Atkins, a 6-8 freshman, averaged 2.3.
“I don’t know if we’ll have a guy that you can just throw it in to like Mike,” Bennett said Tuesday on a teleconference with reporters. “That’s a great luxury. But [the scoring will] be a little more evenly distributed. We’ll look different, of course, and how we get that, that’ll be determined.”
The 6-6 Harris, who played the final 8½ games of the season with a broken non-shooting hand, will be Virginia’s top returning scorer. He averaged 11.3 points this season.
Zeglinski, one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in school history, was third on the team in scoring, at 8.6 ppg. Junior point guard Jontel Evans was next at 7.3, and freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon was fifth at 6.7.
Brogdon, who can play both guard positions, is recovering from major surgery on his left foot. When he’ll be cleared to play again is uncertain.
“It’s an injury that you won’t know a lot about how it’s progressing until you can take the X-rays after the surgery, make sure everything is settled in,” Bennett said. “But the surgery definitely was successful.”
If the 2012-13 season began today, UVa would have only 10 scholarship players: one senior (Evans), two juniors (Harris and Mitchell), three sophomores (Brogdon, Atkins and 6-6 wing Paul Jesperson) and four freshmen (6-11 Mike Tobey, 6-8 Evan Nolte, 6-6 Justin Anderson and 5-11 Teven Jones, a point guard who enrolled in January).
However, Bennett said Tuesday, there is “going to be, hopefully, an offseason acquisition or two that will be important here coming up.”
It’s unclear what form that would take: a transfer (or transfers) who would have to sit out the 2012-13 season, or a player (or players) who would be immediately eligible. What’s certain, though, is that the Cavaliers will need contributions from their freshmen if the team is going to post a third straight winning season.
“I don’t know if every one of them will,” Bennett said. “But certainly some of them will be called upon.”
Under a new NCAA rule, coaches will be allowed to work eight hours a week with players enrolled in summer school. (Previously, only strength-and-conditioning coaches could work with players during the summer.) That should accelerate the development of his newcomers, Bennett said. So should the team’s trip to Europe in August. The Cavaliers will play at least four games during their time in the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
Still, Bennett said, until UVa’s coaches see the freshmen in a college setting, competing against other Division I players, it’s hard to predict how the newcomers will fare in 2012-13.
“But I expect them to come in ready to compete for playing time and to help this team and to be great teammates,” Bennett said, and “really to provide some needed depth and quality play.
“Most of them have played against decent competition, and so that’ll help. But it’s still a jump, and that’s why I like what we’re doing this summer. I think that’s a positive. But I expect quality. I expect them to be sound, smart and tough.”
The Cavaliers play the Pack Line defense devised by Bennett’s father, Dick. It often differs significantly from the defenses that UVa recruits played in high school, so the freshmen will face a learning curve in that area, too.
Ultimately, though, mastering the defense is “really an individual thing,” Bennett said. “Some guys grasp things quicker, can apply it quicker. There’s a physical side of it, certainly, there’s the repetitions that you just get better the longer you’re in the system. But each guy’s different. Some guys, they just pick up things quick. They’re thinkers. Some guys it takes a little longer, just through pounding and through repetition they really grasp it.”
In the latest ACC statistics, UVa ranks first in scoring defense (54.2 points allowed per game), second in 3-point percentage defense (28.9), and third in field-goal percentage defense (40.0). In three of Virginia’s final four games, however, its opponent shot better than 51 percent from the floor and scored more than 62 points. The ‘Hoos lost all three of those games.
“I think our defense gradually took hits as the season wore on,” Bennett said. “It was good in stretches, but I think when we lost Assane, it took a step down, I really do. And then I think certainly when we lost Malcolm. Malcolm gave us some things defensively, but [he] was just another body [too].”
That Harris had to play late in the season with his left hand heavily wrapped didn’t help the Cavaliers on defense, either, and “I just think it slowly eroded, and then some teams took advantage of us,” Bennett said.
“We didn’t have the same kind of defensive productivity or just tenacity … I think we adjusted, but Maryland, Florida, NC State, they certainly got a lot of baskets in the paint against us … We just didn’t quite have the focus or the sharpness that we had through the majority of the year.”
For the final three games of the season, Virginia had only seven healthy scholarship players. In practice, the scout team usually was a makeshift group consisting of several walk-ons, Jones and assistant coach Jason Williford, who played forward for the ‘Hoos in the ’90s.
With a depleted roster, Bennett was forced to shorten practices. Moreover, he said, “we didn’t have the competition in practice to really be sharp. Our walk-ons gave everything, and God bless Coach Williford, he tried to give us what he could. But to not able to go against the playmaking ability and the sharpness [of scholarship players] on a daily basis, I think that might have something to do with it as far as not being as sharp defensively.”
When Bennett was hired away from Washington State in the spring of 2009, UVa had just completed a 10-18 season. Under Bennett, the ‘Hoos went 15-16 in 2009-10 and 16-15 in 2010-11. There has been off-the-court progress as well.
“Of course it comes down to wins and losses,” Bennett said, “but looking at our [team] GPA, looking at how we’re handling our budget, looking at a lot of things, there have been some real positives that I’m excited about in terms of getting some things more clear, more in order, that I think are positioning us nicely for the future.”
Dave Leitao’s final team at UVa finished 4-12 in ACC play. Bennett’s first team went 5-11 in the conference; his second, 7-9. The Cavaliers were 9-7 and tied for fourth in the ACC this season.
“So there’s progress,” Bennett said. “And I think getting into the NCAA tournament — unfortunately we didn’t have a good showing in it — but getting into it was a step. To win the 22 games, which is the most won in a while, all those things are good steps … It takes time, but we’re getting the right players in place.
“Now, when you lose a guy like Mike Scott, you lose Assane and Sammy, who were [seniors] and significant contributors to the program, you have to certainly say, ‘All right, what do we have?’ We’re going to have to be different. My hope is that if we dip a little bit in certain ways, hopefully we’re stronger in others, but I like the long range. It’s always about that.”
Bennett added: “In light of all things, I think we’re in a good spot. That’s why I was brought here, to make some improvements in not just the wins and losses, but in a lot of areas, and I think we’re tracking in the right direction. And my hope is the best is yet to come over the next few years, and I’m excited about that.”
After the loss to Florida, UVa’s coaches told the team’s underclassmen to rest for a couple of weeks. The players aren’t literally locked out of John Paul Jones Arena, but Bennett doesn’t want to see them in the practice gym for a while. That’s one directive the players may have trouble following.
“I’m really eager,” Mitchell said Friday. “There’s going to come a point where they’re going to have to kick me out, because I’m ready to get working.”
So is Evans, who noted that there are other courts on Grounds, including those at the Aquatic and Fitness Center.
“We still got the AFC,” Evans said with a sly smile. “They can’t lock that up.”