Dec. 18, 2014

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — For all those concerned about his physical condition, Darion Atkins offered a reassuring update Tuesday at John Paul Jones Arena.

“Completely fine. One hundred percent,” Atkins said after practicing with the rest of the UVa men’s basketball team.

Atkins, who started six of the Cavaliers’ first eight games this season, had to sit out the ninth — a 74-57 win at VCU on Dec. 6 — after getting hurt three nights earlier against Maryland in College Park.

With 4:08 to play in the first half of an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game that Virginia went on to win 76-65, the 6-8 senior landed hard on his back at the Xfinity Center. Atkins, who grew up in nearby Clinton, Md., left the game and did not return.

“It was a nasty fall,” Atkins said. “It took about a week and a half to get back to 100 percent. I landed on my lower back, and I had a contusion near my ribs. Just a bunch of swelling in my ribs. It stopped me from walking, kind of, and bending over, doing a lot of stuff.”

He’s thankful the injury wasn’t worse. Head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba “was very worried [that night in College Park], because he thought it was a cracked rib or fractured something,” Atkins said. “But my X-ray was completely fine. I just needed time to let the swelling go down.”

Fortunately for Atkins, the Wahoos went into a long break for final exams after the VCU game. Sixth-ranked UVa (9-0) resumes play Thursday at 7 p.m. against Cleveland State (5-5) at JPJ. ESPNU will televise the game.

Had Atkins suffered that injury during the ACC portion of Virginia’s schedule, he probably would have missed several games.

“I kind of see it as a blessing,” he said. “That was perfect timing.”

Atkins, who’s averaging 6.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, leads the `Hoos in blocked shots, with 11, and adds athleticism to an imposing frontcourt that includes 7-0 junior Mike Tobey, 6-8 redshirt junior Anthony Gill and 6-8 junior Evan Nolte.

“He’s sort of that anchor for us on the defensive end that we’ve had always in the past,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said.

With Atkins slowly increasing his workload, the Cavaliers practiced several times last week between exams. Their goal Thursday night is to regain the form that helped them end VCU’s 22-game home winning streak. Few teams around the country have such a long layoff for final exams, and another break, for Christmas, is coming.

First, however, the `Hoos will face Cleveland State and Harvard (noon Sunday at JPJ).

“I think coming off of finals, it’ll be a huge challenge for us,” associate head coach Ritchie McKay said Tuesday.

“To be an elite team, you’ve got to execute, and I think there’s a physical execution that is naturally going to take place, because we’re competitive and we have some goals and aspirations. But because of the time of year, there’s also a mental approach that you have to have in games like these.”

Cleveland State, under veteran coach Gary Waters, has already played at Louisville this season. So the Vikings aren’t likely to be intimidated the scene at JPJ, and “they’re terrifically well-prepared,” McKay said.

“They do a good job on both ends of the floor, so our guys will really need to have a defensive approach, which is foundational to our program, and then have a spirited execution on the offensive end.”

The Harvard game, which ESPNU also will televise, is sold out and figures to be one of the Cavaliers’ sternest non-conference tests. Under former Duke star Tommy Amaker, who grew up in Northern Virginia, the Crimson has captured four straight Ivy League titles and made three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament.

This season, Harvard is 7-1, and Amaker’s players should be well-rested and well-prepared when they arrive in Charlottesville. The Crimson hasn’t played since Dec. 8.

“So they’ve only had one team to prep for,” McKay said. “Granted, they have a challenge, as we do, [coming out of] finals week at the given institutions. But that’s a dangerous team who’s won in the postseason in the NCAA tournament the last couple of years.”

In 2013-14, Virginia played games on Dec. 21 and 23, against Northern Iowa and Norfolk State, respectively, and won both. In 2012-13, however, the Cavaliers lost to ODU in their final game before Christmas, a defeat that helped keep them out of the NCAA tournament that season.

“Coach Bennett always talks about the moment,” McKay said. “We won’t address what’s happened in years past, but I think our guys are motivated to see if we can’t continue to improve and get ready for ACC play, which is now only three weeks away.”

Atkins said: “Out of any time during the year, I feel like we’re more vulnerable now, with the [exam] break and the timing of these games. But we’re all ready, and Coach Bennett, day in and day out, instills in us that we need to bring it every day. And we’ve got a bunch of experienced guys that keep the young guys in check.”

Atkins is only senior among the scholarship players on UVa’s roster, but other veterans include redshirt juniors Gill and Malcolm Brogdon, juniors Tobey, Nolte and Justin Anderson, and sophomore London Perrantes.

In 2013-14, when the Cavaliers swept the ACC titles and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, Atkins averaged only 10.4 minutes per game. That was in large part because of the presence of 6-8 big man Akil Mitchell, one of the ACC’s premier defensive players.

That Atkins, whose sophomore season had been derailed by a leg injury, believed he deserved more playing time in 2013-14 was often apparent in his body language.

“He’s a competitor,” Bennett said. “He’s always wanted to play, and it’s sometimes hard when … the time isn’t there. I think he’s gotten more of a consistent opportunity [this season], because of personnel, and because he’s improved. He’s had a good offseason and has worked hard.”

With Mitchell gone, Atkins’ role has grown significantly. He’s averaging 19.8 minutes per game, and that figure would be higher had Atkins not been injured in the first half against Maryland.

To best help the `Hoos this season, and to enhance his prospects for playing professionally, Atkins needs to focus on being “an X-factor out there,” an active defender and rebounder, Bennett said.

“Doing those things similar to what Akil was for us, that’s going to be his way, and I think he’s getting better and more consistent. And as we’ve said many times, when you’re in your last year, you realize, `All right, this is it, and I really want to make the most of it.’ And he’s done a nice job of improving, getting stronger, and when he’s been out there making the most of the opportunities.”

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