By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CLEMSON, S.C. — Statistics can deceive, but they tell an accurate story in this case. Darion Atkins’ production has dipped over the past month, and the 6-8 sophomore from Clinton, Md., acknowledged Friday that he’s not the same player he was through UVa’s first 11 basketball games this season.
“I’m definitely capable, but I feel like I’ve lost some confidence, and I feel like everyone knows it,” Atkins said after practice at John Paul Jones Arena. “I just gotta fight through the pain.”
The pain is in his lower right leg. Stress on the area near his tibia is the cause, Atkins said.
“It’s just one of those things where in order for it to completely go away, you have to rest it, and I don’t really have time to do that,” he said.
Virginia (11-4, 1-1) meets Clemson (8-6, 0-2) at noon Saturday in an ACC game at Littlejohn Coliseum, and Atkins is likely to make his 12th start of the season. A graduate of Landon School in Bethesda, Md., Atkins averaged 11.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots during a six-game stretch that began Nov. 20 against North Texas and ended Dec. 19 against Morgan State.
“He was so effective early,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said.
In the days leading up to UVa’s Dec. 22 game against Old Dominion, however, Atkins’ shin began bothering him, and that limited his availability in practice.
He had only four points in a stunning loss to ODU at the Richmond Coliseum, then went scoreless eight days later in a win over Wofford. In each of the past two games — a victory over North Carolina and a loss to Wake Forest — he’s scored two points.
Through Virginia’s first 11 games, Atkins was averaging 9.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. He’s now at 7.3, 4.5 and 1.5, respectively. Atkins contributed a huge play against the Tar Heels, blocking an attempted dunk by James Michael McAdoo in the second half, but such highlights have been few and far between for No. 32 recently.
“He just hasn’t quite been himself,” Bennett said. “It’s unfortunate, because you have to be able to practice hard and prepare, and he’s limited somewhat in what he can do. There’s no question he’s not 100-percent physically, but hopefully he can battle through that.”
Neither Atkins nor Ethan Saliba, UVa’s head athletic trainer, is sure what caused the injury. Atkins is working with Saliba to strengthen his leg, and Atkins said he’s scheduled to meet with a doctor Monday to see what can be done to reduce his discomfort level for the rest of the season.
Atkins knows, however, that he must become better at playing with pain. He has no other option if he wants to help the Cavaliers meet their goals this season.
“I’m starting to learn now, because I have to deal with it,” he said.
Atkins played only 16 minutes in each of the past two games, partly because of his injury, but partly because his production has dropped.
“That’s definitely health-related,” Atkins said. “In the Wake Forest game, my mind was not in the game, because I was too worried about it hurting me. And the funny thing about it was, when I was in the game, it was not hurting me. I was too worried, so that’s why my game was off. I couldn’t hit a shot, and I feel like I was a step slower because of this.”
Assistant coach Jason Williford said: “That’s part of being young. He’s still inexperienced. I know he’s played a lot, but he’s fairly young. But he’s got to be mentally tougher.”
Atkins hasn’t been the same player in practice since his leg started hurting, and that’s affected his performance in games.
“He’s got to practice the way he wants to play,” Williford said. “And I think a little bit of it is the injury, but he’s got to be mentally tough. He’s got to mentally get over that part.”
A strong game from Atkins would be especially welcome against the Tigers, whom UVa’s associate head coach, Ritchie McKay, described as “physical” and “athletic.”
“It’s gonna be rugged tomorrow,” Bennett told his players after Virginia’s shootaround Friday night at Littlejohn.
The most rugged Tiger is Devin Booker, a 6-8, 250-pound senior whose brother, Washington Wizards forward Trevor Booker, preceded him at Clemson. The younger Booker averages 12 points and eight rebounds.
Milton Jennings, a 6-9, 225-pound senior, averages 10 points and five rebounds. He’s not as imposing physically as the Booker brothers, but Jennings concerns the Wahoos, as does 6-6 sophomore KJ McDaniels (11 ppg, 5 rpg).
UVa’s post players “definitely gotta step it up a notch,” Atkins said. “We gotta match their physicality. I think that’s the main thing, because if we don’t come out aggressive and physical, they’re going to dominate us, they’re going to destroy us. Especially Booker.”
Virginia is seeking its first win at Clemson since Jan. 28, 2007. In that game, the Sean Singletary-led `Hoos scored the final 15 points to stun the Tigers 64-63.