Bennett’s Bunch Ready To Go

Tony Bennett’s team faces some challenges this season.

The Virginia men’s basketball team likely will look much different in March than it does in November. Two factors lead to that hypothesis: injuries and inexperience. Starting point guard Jontel Evans and versatile wing Malcolm Brogdon , after all, will begin the season on the sidelines when UVa opens practice Friday. That puts pressure on some young players to fill the void in the early weeks of the 2012-2013 campaign.

Cavalier coach Tony Bennett addressed the challenges presented by those two big I’s as the Hoos gathered for their media day on Wednedsay. The UVa coach is looking for another I – improvement – to be the path for this year’s team.

“This is a team that in my estimation will continue to improve as the season progresses,” Bennett said. “I think when you have a younger team, you usually see that.”

Looking first at the injuries, Evans had surgery on Oct. 2 and is expected to miss approximately six weeks. That could put his availability for the Nov. 9 opener at George Mason in jeopardy, but if things go well with his recovery, he shouldn’t miss too much time in November.

Brogdon’s status is much less clear. Bennett said he had no timetable for Brogdon’s return, but that the rehabilitation process is still progressing in the right direction. The Georgia native had surgery in March and slowly has been adding new physical elements – jogging for example – to his routine.

“[Jontel’s] is a pretty standard injury. I’ve had a few players have that injury. I don’t think it was real severe but certainly needed the surgical intervention that I think the press release stated so eloquently. … Hopefully we’ll get him back as soon as possible,” Bennett said. “Malcolm is progressing. Slowly, but he’s progressing. It’s just part of that deal. … He’s shooting, he’s jogging, and doing very light things. It’s just a natural progression with a fairly significant surgery. … I wish I had a timetable where I could say it’s a month away or two months, but I just don’t. He had the surgery a while ago, but it’s not a typical six-week recovery. It’s a longer recovery and that’s where he’s at. Everything from all of the tests, all of the scans, and all of that are very positive when the doctor looks at them and where he sees his long-term success.”

While Evans and Brogdon recover, the Cavaliers will use a committee approach to the point guard position, though that isn’t a huge change in philosophy. Bennett always thinks of players as lead guards or combination guards as much as true point guards anyway and, at times, different players initiate the offensive action even when someone like Evans is on the floor. That means youngsters like Taylor Barnette and Teven Jones , both freshmen, will get opportunities to hold down the point guard slot.

Joe Harris may need to shoulder some point guard duties at times this season.

There are walk-on or veteran options as well. Someone like senior Doug Browman matches both of those descriptions or perhaps freshman Justin Miller could throw his hat in the ring. There likely will be times where the Hoos use the versatility of some wing players in a point guard role, though. That ‘s where Joe Harris and Paul Jesperson fit into the equation. Both are high IQ players from basketball backgrounds and both have run some point guard at times in their career. Harris did it some on Virginia’s summer trip to Europe, while Jesperson frequently filled that spot on his high school team. Bennett does like big guards – guys in the Terry Porter mold – philosophically as well.

Harris said he isn’t rattled by the possibility.

“No, I’m not uncomfortable at all with it. I have no problem with bringing the ball up the floor against pressure or anything like that,” Harris said. “Obviously I understand with Jontel out, one of us has got to do it and step up and replace the leadership role that Jontel has and the floor general part also.”

Of course, the offensive end isn’t what sounds scariest about that possibility. The conventional concern with a non-traditional point guard is the ability to defend the opposing team’s point guard. That PG spot often features a quick player with driving ability that makes an offense go with penetration off the dribble. Harris said he believes the team defensive concept along with some individual adjustments should make up for any disadvantage in the foot speed category, though.

“Obviously we may not be as quick and fast as most point guards that we’ll be defending, but the whole identity of the Pack-Line is not one person against the ball. It’s the collective group. Everybody is defending the ball,” Harris said. “If I’m guarding the point and my guy is that much quicker, I have to be smart enough to adjust to how I’m going to play defense on this guy or if I can give him space or shade him this way and just rely and trust in the guys behind me.”

Beyond the injury concerns at point guard, the Cavaliers’ other chief challenge for this season will come in the form of inexperienced contributors. Even with Evans and Brogdon available, several fresh faces are expected to have roles in the rotation this season whether that’s in the post where there’s limited depth or on the perimeter.

Jones and Barnette, as mentioned above, could be needed to provide minutes in a lead guard role. Players like Justin Anderson and Evan Nolte could be asked to fill combination roles as forwards, both inside and outside on both ends of the floor. Mike Tobey , who just turned 18 on Wednesday, certainly will be needed in the post where he is the only player on the roster with “C” (center) in the position column.

As always is true with young players that will present challenges with defense, the length of the season, and physical strength. In other words, there’s built in inconsistency with inexperience. Bennett acknowledged that Wednesday, but he’s excited about the potential of the young players in the program. UVa’s roster features just one scholarship senior (Evans) and two scholarship juniors (Harris and Akil Mitchell ).

“We want to play good basketball. Certainly, we’d love a chance to finish well in the conference and try to get into postseason play. I think that’s always a goal for us. … We’ll be a different team, but still build on what we did last year. We’ll look different, but I think there’s opportunities for success,” Bennett said. “I thought we’d at this stage have more of a mature team. I thought we’d have a number of upper classmen, but with the departures and the transfers that makes you take a step back and work with the younger guys. I think some of these younger guys are probably going to have a really nice future all things considered, but losing some of those transfers has made us more inexperienced. That’s the challenge. If we can overcome that … if they have the right mindset and can learn the system quickly and sort of find their way, I think we can be an effective team. … I think the future does look bright, I really do.”

The first step in that journey is Friday when the Hoos officially open practice. Virginia has been allowed previous two-hour sessions by NCAA rules. The Cavaliers also took a trip to Europe in August that included 10 practice sessions as well. Bennett believes that trip put the team further along on the development curve.

“I think it is an advantage. Two things happened. You get the two hours in the summer to work with your team and practice so you can kind of pour into them a little more and there’s a faster learning curve for them,” Bennett said. “The 10 practices plus seeing them in competitive settings and then certainly the other side, just being able to hang out on the trip and getting to build the relationships that way, that’s valuable. For a team this young, I think that’s very important. Let’s say this was no European trip and we’re starting practice on Friday … I feel like we’d probably be further behind and we’d have to start in a different place than we will on Friday.”

Note: On Friday, Oct. 19, the men’s basketball team will hold an intrasquad scrimmage from 5:30-6:15 p.m. at John Paul Jones Arena. Gates open at 5 p.m. On Sunday, Oct. 21, the men’s basketball team will hold a Meet the Team event and open house from 4-5:30 p.m.