Upperclassmen Step to Forefront for Bennett
Oct. 30, 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — By the time Tony Bennett‘s second full recruiting class enrolled at the University of Virginia, in the summer of 2011, the foundation for his basketball program had been laid by players such as Mike Scott, Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris.
Mitchell and Harris were part of the six-player class that arrived at UVa in 2010. Bennett’s next group of recruits was smaller, consisting of Malcolm Brogdon, Paul Jesperson and Darion Atkins. This class joined a team that had finished 16-15 overall and 7-9 in the ACC in 2010-11 and was on the verge of a breakthrough.
Led by the 6-8 Scott, a fifth-year senior, the Cavaliers won 22 games in 2011-12 and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.
“I think Akil and Joe were the first [recruits] that really exemplified all of Coach Bennett’s principles and that really just totally bought in,” Brogdon said Wednesday at ACC Operation Basketball.
“Mike Scott really bought in, too, and that’s why we were so successful when he was here. But I think Akil and Joe just exemplified the unselfishness and all the qualities that make a team great.”
Recruiting classes don’t always remain intact. From Bennett’s first full class, only Harris and Mitchell were still at the University when the calendar flipped to 2012, and his second class experienced turbulence, too.
After starting 33 games for the Wahoos in 2012-13, Jesperson transferred to Northern Iowa, where he has two years of eligibility left after sitting out last season. Brogdon broke a bone in his foot late in his freshman season and redshirted in 2012-13 while recovering from surgery.
Of the three players who came in together, only the 6-8 Atkins is heading into his final college season. He’s also the only senior on the Cavaliers’ roster. (Brogdon and 6-8 Anthony Gill, fourth-years academically, are redshirt juniors athletically.)
“It’s sad, man,” Atkins, smiling, told reporters Wednesday during the ACC’s media day. “I’m a lone ranger, the only senior. Now [Brogdon is] in the class below me. On Senior Night, I’ll be pretty lonely.”
Of the paths he and his classmates have taken, Brogdon said, “I think it’s actually amazing how we’ve all ended up in different spots, different places, but I just think God has a plan for everybody, and everybody’s plan is different. No matter how it works out, even if we’re going to the same place, we’re going to get there in different ways.”
Brogdon and Jesperson bonded immediately as first-years at UVa, and Brogdon was sorry to see his friend leave.
“I thought Paul was very good, but like everybody you go through ups and downs, and you’re tested at this level of basketball,” Brogdon said. “Some people can take it, and some people feel like the grass is greener on the other side, and I think honestly Paul might have made a good decision for himself, if that’s what he felt. I wasn’t going to argue with him. If that’s what he wanted to do, he was a friend, and I supported whatever he wanted to do.”
Brogdon, a 6-5 guard from Atlanta, was the Cavaliers’ sixth man for most of the 2011-12 season, and as a redshirt sophomore in 2013-14 he was named to the All-ACC first team.
Atkins, a 6-8 post player from Clinton, Md., has 15 starts as a Cavalier, but 12 came in 2012-13. He would have started more that season, but a stress reaction in his lower right leg sidelined Atkins for eight games and bothered him in many others.
Even so, he averaged 15.7 minutes per game in 2012-13. But as part of a talented frontcourt that also included Mitchell, 6-8 Anthony Gill, 7-0 Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte, Atkins saw his average drop to 10.4 minutes per game last season.
Now, with Mitchell gone, Atkins hopes to earn a larger role in his final college season.
“Whatever opportunities that Coach Bennett provides for you, you have to maximize,” Atkins said, “because if you do that, more opportunities will open up for you. And if you don’t, then you may just be stagnant. You may stay where you are.”
Atkins has no intention of letting that happen.
“I’ve been patient and I’ve waited,” he said. “I want to play. I want to be part of the team’s success. I just want to be an important guy to help my team.”
At Landon School in Bethesda, Md., Atkins seriously considered Notre Dame before choosing UVa. Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey remains an Atkins fan.
“I love him,” Brey said Wednesday. “He’s ready to be a main guy. He’s paid his dues and played behind some men. He’s got a great basketball IQ. He’ll step right in there, because there’s a culture [established at UVa].”
The key for Atkins, Brogdon said, is “to go out and want it every day, and he’s been showing that in preseason, and I think he’s going to really surprise people this season with his play.”
That Bennett would select Brogdon to represent UVa at ACC Operation Basketball was no surprise. Atkins, who posted modest averages of 3.0 points and 2.2 rebounds last season, was thrilled to join his teammate in Charlotte.
“As funny as that might sound, I feel kind of important,” Atkins said. “I feel kind of valued, and I’m just happy I was one of the guys chosen, and I think it means a lot.”
The 6-8 Mitchell, who averaged 25.7 minutes per game in 2013-14, anchored the defense of a team that finished 30-7, swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles, and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
“No one person can fill Akil’s role, although I can say Darion will play a huge part in replacing what Akil did for us,” Brogdon said.
A bigger threat at the offensive end than Mitchell, and a better shot-blocker, Atkins is not as versatile defensively, but comparisons between the two are understandable. In some ways, Bennett said, Atkins is “similar to Akil, in terms of his quickness on ball screens [and athleticism].”
Atkins will also be asked to provide leadership this season, as will the other Cavaliers who entered college in 2011: Brogdon and Gill. All were content to defer to the seniors in 2013-14.
“I have to step up and be a vocal leader this year,” Brogdon said, “and also lead by example, which I think Akil and Joe did at a very high level. Not as much talking, but if you wanted to see how it was done or wanted confidence from somebody, it was them that you looked to.”
Brogdon wants to elevate his game in other ways as well. In the offseason, he focused on getting in better shape – he dropped about five pounds – improving his shot and becoming a better defender.
“I want to defend at an elite level this year,” he said, “so there’s no question when I guard you during the games, you’re going to struggle tonight.”
Brogdon is coming off a season in which he started 37 games and led the `Hoos in scoring (12.7 ppg) and free-throw percentage (87.5). He also averaged 5.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.2 steals and shot 37 percent from 3-point range.
“He’s complete,” Bennett said. “Maybe he isn’t poetry in motion, but he’s powerful, he can shoot the ball, he can put it on the floor, he rebounds, he can guard, and I like that completeness. In our system complete guards usually fare well.”
Among the many highlights Brogdon produced in 2013-14 was the 3-pointer he hit as time expired to lift UVa to a Super Bowl Sunday victory at Pittsburgh.
“I’m so impressed with Malcolm,” Brey said. “There’s not a better player in the league than him, and he proved it last year. He’s just a man.”
After playing against North Carolina on Feb. 25, 2012, Brogdon missed Virginia’s next 39 games. Given that layoff, nobody knew how effective Brogdon would be in 2013-14.
There are no such questions about his game this fall. In balloting among media members, Brogdon received the fourth-most votes (55) for the preseason All-ACC team, finishing behind North Carolina’s Marcus Paige (63), Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell (58) and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor (57) and ahead of Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant (24).
In the preseason ACC poll, Virginia (824 points) was picked to finish fourth, behind Duke (935), UNC (870) and Louisville (847). The Cavaliers received seven first-place votes, to 41 for the Blue Devils, 12 for the Tar Heels and three for the Cardinals.
The `Hoos enter their sixth season under Bennett ranked No. 8 in the USA Today coaches’ poll. Still, they’re determined to retain the blue-collar mentality that helped them rise to the top of the ACC in 2013-14.
That will require “ignoring all the expectations, all of the accolades,” Brogdon said, “and when people put us up on a pedestal, we ignore it. All those function as distractions for us, and I think the better that we can block them out, the more successful we will be this season.”
Such comments reflect the thoughtfulness of Brogdon, who’s in a master’s program in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Not only is he one of the nation’s premier players, he’s a committed student from a family known for its academic achievements.
His mother is a professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta. His father is an attorney. One of Brogdon’s brothers is an attorney and the other is in law school.
“He really represents a student-athlete well,” Bennett said of Brogdon, whose program in the Batten School runs through the 2015-16 academic year. “He’s always been mature and handled the moment well, and he’s very driven. He just has a maturity that is beyond his years, and he can articulate it.”
As anyone who’s heard him speak can attest, Brogdon does so in a distinctive manner.
“He’s got that deep voice,” Bennett said, laughing. “Whenever he comes on the radio show with [UVa play-by-play announcer] Dave Koehn, Dave starts sweating because he realizes he’s in over his head.”