Cavaliers Ready To Get Started

Tony Bennett returns for his second season as Virginia’s head coach.

The leaves are turning brown and the air is getting crisp in Charlottesville. Nevertheless, it’s toasty warm inside the John Paul Jones Arena where Tony Bennett and the Cavalier men’s basketball team are hard at work preparing to open official practices for the 2010-2011 season. Coach Bennett and the team had a rough first season last year, finishing with a 15-16 record and missing out on postseason play. Several high-profile players such as Jerome Meyinsse , Jeff Jones , and Sylven Landesberg either left the team or graduated. Heralded freshman Tristan Spurlock also decided to transfer, leaving a lot of roster space. However, Bennett is optimistic about the team he has assembled, even if it does include seven freshmen (including one walk-on).

“We’ve got a lot of work to do because there are so many new guys, but I’m really looking forward to working with them. The two hours a week that we’ve had has been productive in some ways, and we need time to work together but I like the feeling of this group and we have certainly a schedule that will challenge us,” Bennett said. “The guys that have returned are in a good place. They’re working hard and they’re trying to lead. And the new young men are trying to figure it all out, which is normal. I’m looking forward to it.”

This year’s team certainly will look far different from the 2009-10 squad, but Bennett’s defensive philosophy remains the same. The Pack-Line defense is designed to act as a kind of equalizer, forcing opposing offenses to play patiently and taking away team’s preferred looks. Once practice actually begins, Bennett and the veteran players will have a lot of work to do getting the younger guys integrated into the system.

“They’ve done a good job, our returners, of taking the younger guys and explaining some things, working with them on the side,” Bennett said. “Also the returners need to be reminded too, sometimes, but they will be crucial in speeding up the process because some of those young guys will have to contribute just by sheer numbers.”

Although the team is loaded with fresh blood, the change-over from last season has served the Cavaliers well. Senior forward Will Sherrill feels that this year’s squad is a more cohesive unit.

“There are no egos on the team,” he said. “Everybody wants to be here, no one wants to transfer. There aren’t as many distractions in that way.”

“There’s a lot more unity,” junior guard Sammy Zeglinski agreed. “The people who didn’t want to be here left Virginia, and the people who wanted to stay and do it as a team have really come together. Now we’ve got freshmen who have all bought into Coach Bennett’s system.”

Setting Goals

Although practice hasn’t started yet, it’s never too early to start setting benchmarks for success. Last year was Coach Bennett’s first season at Virginia, but this year may be even tougher due to the loss of key players and the introduction of seven new freshmen. The Pack-Line defense isn’t particularly common, so the new guys will be getting their first taste of the scheme when full practices begin. The season opens on Nov. 12 against William & Mary at home so once the gloves come off later this month with the first official practice on Oct. 15, it will be a non-stop effort to cement the defensive game plan.

“I thought we were inconsistent,” Bennett said of last year’s team. “There were times when we touched it, but when you try to pride yourself on your defense, good defensive teams they anticipate more than they react. If I looked at one thing, at times we were more reactive. The good teams, whatever your system is on defense, they know how to anticipate. They’re in two places at once. There’s not much guesswork. I think the better we can become with the anticipation. It comes down to are you able to anticipate and play without thinking.”

As far as win-loss records go, many of the players think that Virginia has a legitimate chance in the ACC this season, as plenty of other teams have lost players and even coaches.

“The ACC, I feel like everybody lost a lot of players this last year,” Zeglinski said. “Realistically we can be right in the midst of everybody else. We can compete on any given night with any team.”

While Coach Bennett is also hopeful about his team’s chances, he also wants his squad to focus on the fundamentals, rather than trying to be giant-killers with the schedule. It’s the one game at a time, enjoy the process approach.

“Every year you step in, and you certainly want to go to postseason play, it’s challenging because you want the quick fixes and the immediate results. It’s important not to get the cart ahead of the horse,” he said. “We talk about things as a team. It’s gotta be about the process for us and the quality side of things. Yes we have goals about individual team goals, what we want to hold people to, turnovers, and field goal percentage. We want to focus on the process, that’s got to be big.”

“The Monster” Unleashed

Mike Scott is ready to step up and be an impact player for the Cavaliers.

It seems as if Cavalier fans have been waiting an eternity for senior Mike Scott to lock in with consistency on the court. The 6’8″ forward from Chesapeake, Va., has been a solid contributor for the past three seasons, and emerged as a force underneath the basket. He led the team in rebounds-per-game for the second consecutive year with 7.2, and had 11 rebounds against Duke in the ACC Tournament. Scott scored in double figures in 22 games last season, and also led the team in double-doubles for the second year in a row. Still, there have been head-scratcher games at times with limited production.

Scott really has put in work during the offseason, and his teammates and coaches have taken notice.

“Mike Scott has had a nice preseason. He certainly has the most experience returning from a productivity standpoint and playing,” Bennett said. “Hopefully, being in his last year, he’s had a good offseason, preseason in the weight room working on his individual skills. With Mike, there’s something to be said for being in your final year and trying to do it right.”

Scott has been working especially hard on his dribbling and improving his skill set as a back-to-the-basket player. He will need to be a more “heads up” forward this season, as well as a senior leader.

“I think he’s going to have a great year. He’s worked really hard over the spring and the summer and I’m excited to see what he’s going to do for us,” Sherrill said. “We need it, too; he’s definitely our number one threat inside. It would help us a lot if he could become a monster.”

Fresh Faces

With six incoming freshmen on scholarship and one walk-on, there is certainly plenty of fresh talent on the Cavalier roster. Since there are so many young players, at least some of them will be contributing this season on the court. Bennett expects plenty of competition between the younger players and the veterans.

“There’s some depth and some hungry guys to play, so I think it’s a good thing in your program to say that,” he said. “There will be healthy competition; I can see that from the preseason.”

Two players creating a lot of early buzz are guard KT Harrell and forward James Johnson . Bennett praised Harrell as being a strong and steady player with a lot of maturity.

“What I like about KT so far is that he’s very composed; he doesn’t get sped up. I think that’s a very common thing with young players that they want to go a million miles an hour,” he said. “KT has a very nice pace to him where he allows the game to come to him.”

Harrell himself is excited to join the program and aid in the rebuilding effort: “I want to change what’s going on, and help change what’s going on at this school. Rebuild that old Virginia status. I know that’s what Coach Bennett wants and I want to be a part of it.”

Johnson, on the other hand, does go a million miles an hour and is described as still being “raw.” However, he has earned the respect of his teammates through his tough, physical play on the court.

“He’s always running the floor hard,” Zeglinski said. “He’s going to be an exciting player to watch because he always goes hard.”

Johnson’s transition to ACC basketball should be interesting to watch. It remains to be seen how his physical play will adapt to the speed and quickness displayed by teams around the conference.

“I can move. I mean, I’m not a back to the basket player, I can do other things,” Johnson said. “Plus, the conditioning we’ve been doing, I think I’m in a lot better shape. I think I’ll be able to handle it when it comes to that time.”

A Jolly, Not-So-Hungry, Giant

7’0″ Assane Sene is used to being the tallest player on the court, but this offseason he has been focused on gaining weight and becoming one of the biggest guys around. Sene is only listed as being five pounds heavier than last season, but the change in his physique is evident.

As the team’s only true center, Assane Sene will play a pivotal role this season.

“Assane had a good offseason. He has put on some weight and gotten stronger. He’s worked really hard just on his own, working on some jump hooks, working on catching some things,” Bennett said. “From the spring to the summer to the fall, he’s really gone to work on that and it looks like he’s made some improvements. He’s in a good place and he’s working hard.”

In addition to the hours spent in the weight room, Sene has been chowing down at the dinner table. Although some college guys would love any excuse to eat as much as they want, it has been something of a chore for the junior center from Senegal.

“It’s not something easy. Me, I don’t have a good appetite. My appetite is really low, I don’t eat a lot. In the summer I talked to Coach Curtis, I talked to a lot of people when I went home to Senegal too,” Sene said. “They all just told me ‘You have to force yourself, you have to make yourself eat. Nothing is easy in this life. You have to force yourself to eat and you will see the results.’ And as I keep eating a lot, like 5 meals a day, I keep seeing the results. I’m gaining weight, so it’s working. I just have to keep doing it.”

Sene has been so dedicated in his gastronomical pursuits, that even a favorite comfort food has become something akin to torture.

“Coach Bennett and everybody was making fun of me for eating peanut butter and jelly. I’m just sick about it. I can’t eat it any more,” he said with a laugh. “Every time I see it, it makes me want to cry. I eat peanut butter and jelly before I go to bed. I will need the strength.”

Worth Noting

  • Only three players on the 13-man roster are from the state of Virginia: Jontel Evans (Hampton, Va.), Mike Scott (Chesapeake, Va.), and walk-on Thomas Rogers (Farmville, Va.)
  • Former walk-on Will Sherrill received a scholarship this offseason for the 2010-2011 year.
  • Senior Mustapha Farrakhan had a career-high five rebounds against Duke in the ACC Tournament.
  • The Cavaliers upset three Top 25 teams last season: No. 24 UAB, No. 20 Georgia Tech, and No. 23 Miami.

Worth Quoting

“I don’t really understand it, but I guess they took it from my workout mentality. I try to work hard whenever I can.” – James Johnson on his nickname, “Beast.”

“Not yet, as soon as I get some more money I’ll get new ink.” – Mike Scott on if he had gotten any new tattoos during the offseason.

“For a big meal I eat regular like everybody. I go to Outback sometime. I eat well. Sometimes I go to Downtown Grill. Gotta eat good and healthy.” – Assane Sene on where he likes to go out to eat.

“What happened at the end of last year was that our team realized that we don’t have one guy who can just dominate a game. We’re going to have to do this together through team defense, through sharing the ball, through getting great looks. That’s how we will be successful and that’s how this program will be successful. The team embraced that idea and now we have to reintroduce it and do it with a different kind of chemistry.” – Tony Bennett on what needs to change from last season.