Nov. 28, 2012

By Jeff White (

MADISON, Wis. — After stopping at the University of Wisconsin’s Kohl Center for a short shootaround on the way in from the airport, the UVa men’s basketball team arrived at its hotel around 9 o’clock local time Tuesday night.

Waiting for sophomore Paul Jesperson in the lobby was a TV crew.

Jesperson has started five games this season, but he’s not one of the Cavaliers’ marquee players. He is, however, a Wisconsin native. Jesperson was born and raised in Merrill, a small town about 165 miles north of Madison, and his return to the state is a big deal to many, including the TV station that came out on a frigid Midwest night to interview the 6-6 swingman.

At 7 p.m. Eastern, UVa (4-2) meets Wisconsin (4-2) in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game Wednesday at the Kohl Center. Jesperson’s cheering section will include his parents and his six siblings, “plus some of their kids,” he said Tuesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.

“It’s going to be pretty big, because a lot of my friends go to Wisconsin. So a lot of those guys will be there too.”

Jesperson, of course, is not the only member of his team’s extended family with ties to this state. Head coach Tony Bennett was born in Clintonville and starred for his father, Dick, at Green Bay. The younger Bennett later was an assistant at Wisconsin, where his father coached the team that reached the Final Four in 2000.

The starting center on that team was Mark Vershaw, now a graduate manager at UVa. One of the Cavaliers’ freshmen, forward Evan Nolte, was born in Milwaukee, and his parents are from Wisconsin. Nolte has an aunt who lives in Waukesha, and his maternal grandmother lives in Fort Akinson, about 35 miles from Madison.

“My grandma, she’s a huge Wisconsin fan,” Nolte said, “but she’ll be cheering for the Cavs [on Wednesday night].”

There’s more. UVa’s academic adviser for men’s basketball, T.J. Grams, is a Wisconsin graduate, and the team’s media relations director, Erich Bacher, grew up in Stevens Point, where his friends included Tony Bennett. That’s a lot of ties to the Badger State for a basketball program about 1,000 miles away.

“That’s what we need,” Jesperson said, smiling.

This will not be the first time Jesperson has played in the Badgers’ 17,230-seat arena. In March 2011, as a senior, he helped Merrill High advance to the state tournament for the first time since 1964.

In the Division 2 semifinals, with Bennett watching from the stands at the Kohl Center, Jesperson scored 27 points in a victory over Waunakee. A day later, Jesperson scored 22 points, but Merrill lost to Whitefish Bay in the championship game.

Jesperson was his state’s Gatorade player of the year as a 12th-grader, but Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan chose to pursue other players in the Class of 2011.

“It was a little frustrating, being a home-state kid and not getting an offer,” Jesperson said, “but I used it as motivation, and I got to a place I’m very happy at right now, so I can’t complain too much.

“I think a lot of people were shocked it didn’t happen, but I think they got over it too, as soon as they found out the things that Virginia has to offer.”

Jesperson went into his first college season expecting to redshirt, but the midyear departures of KT Harrell and James Johnson left the Wahoos short-handed in 2011-12. And so Jesperson, after sitting out the first 11 games, played in the final 21. He threw down an emphatic dunk against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but otherwise it wasn’t a memorable season for Jesperson, who made only 7 of 31 shots from 3-point range.

He’s made more of an impact this season. His playing time has increased, in part because of injuries to guards Jontel Evans, who missed five of UVa’s first six games, and Malcolm Brogdon, who will redshirt this season. Jesperson scored a career-high nine points against Lamar last week, and he’s shooting 35.3 percent from beyond the arc.

In UVa’s past three games — all victories — redshirt freshman Teven Jones has played well at point guard in Evans’ absence. But Evans, whose teammates call him Bub, has been cleared to play against the Badgers, and that should “help me a ton, individually,” Jesperson said.

“I think it’ll help the team a lot, too, but individually, shots are so much easier to come by now, with a true point out there. We’ve noticed that with Teven playing, and with Bub being back in practice, because he’s so good at getting in the lane, making people collapse and then finding you on the perimeter. So it’s definitely going to help us with a lot more open shots, for me and Joe [Harris].”

The pairings for this year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge were announced May 14. Given Bennett’s ties to Wisconsin, it surprised no one that the `Hoos drew the Badgers.

“I knew that we’d probably get `em on the schedule for one of the years for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge,” Jesperson said, “so I was really excited when the schedule came out and I saw we’d get to play these guys.”

The Cavaliers will return to this state next season to face Bennett’s alma mater, Green Bay. The Phoenix played at JPJ last season and will meet UVa there again Saturday at 4 p.m.

UVa’s immediate concern, though, is the Badgers, who have made the NCAA tournament in each of the past 14 seasons.

“I think they’re obviously a real good team,” Jesperson said, “but I feel like if we just play our system and get after them defensively, we have a good shot.”

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