Virginia Basketball Notes: Tomas Woldetensae Staying Focused, Helping Hoos

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University of Virginia basketball guard Tomas Woldetensae started 22 of 29 games and averaged 27 minutes per game as a junior in 2019-20. As a senior, the 6’5” native of Bologna, Italy finds himself in a much different role.

Tomas Woldetensae provided a major spark off the bench in Virginia basketball wins at Clemson and against Pitt. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

After receiving double-digit minutes of playing time in UVA’s first seven games of 2020-21, Woldetensae has played double-digit minutes in only two of the last nine contests. He played seven minutes or less in three of those games and did not play at all in Virginia’s January 13 home victory over Notre Dame. Through 16 games, Woldetensae’s minute-per-game average is just 12.5.

“At the beginning of the season, settling into my role was a little bit challenging, a bit unsettling,” Woldetensae said following UVA’s home win over Pitt this past Saturday. “But now I’m seeing myself in that type of role for this team [as a shooter] and I’m getting myself ready for this type of action. So, most of it is about mindset and just understanding your role.”

Despite the uncertain playing time, the sharpshooting guard has grabbed a starring role in two of Virginia’s more recent victories – a drubbing of Clemson at Clemson on January 16 and the victory over Pitt in Charlottesville. Woldetensae scored 14 points in each of those wins. He sparked a hot shooting barrage to tame the Tigers and was instrumental against the Panthers, helping the Hoos finish out the first half in strong fashion and pouring in two key second-half 3s to fend off a Pitt rally.

Woldetensae finished 4-of-6 from beyond the arc against Clemson and 4-of-5 from 3-point range against Pitt.

“I’m so proud of Tomas because his attitude has been really good and he has worked,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said during his February 8 ‘Coach’s Corner’ radio show. “He comes in extra. He gets shots. He’s stayed ready, and boy we needed that. And that’s hard.”

Woldetensae added: “Yes, it’s hard to stay confident and ready to go once your name is called, but I’m always happy when the guys produce and win game because at the end of the day, it’s about the team and winning.”

Bennett Addresses Players Not Receiving Minutes

Woldetensae isn’t the only player adjusting to a limited role. Forward Justin McKoy has seen his role dwindle over the course of the season. The 6’8” sophomore played double-digit minutes in UVA’s first four games of 2020-21 and six of the first eight. However, after playing 14 minutes in a January 6 win over Wake Forest, McKoy has not seen double-digit minutes in any game since. Additionally, he has four games in which he saw five minutes or less and has three DNPs. Bennett has gone away from high-energy sophomore at center, instead opting for Papi Caffaro to sub in for Jay Huff. In terms of playing the 4 position, Sam Hauser is a mainstay and Trey Murphy III has played there as well, further limiting McKoy’s opportunities.

Promising first-year players Jabri Abdur-Rahim and Carson McCorkle have primarily been relegated to the bench most of this season, with both players playing just six games. On the February 8 ‘Coach’s Corner’, Bennett relayed the message he had for those players who may not be having the success they envisioned.

“After practice [on February 8] I read something to our guys,” Bennett said. “I told ‘em, I said, I’m not as concerned about the guys who are getting a lot of time, and even the guys that are walk-ons because you knew what you were coming in to, but to you guys who aren’t playing, I said, I struggle with that. It bothers me because I want them, but I read something, I just talked about guarding your heart and guarding your thoughts and just not worrying too much except walking the path that’s before you and trying to be the best in that. Because this is the time of year – well intentioned – where, you know, you’ll have agents talking to guys who are playing, ‘You need to show. You need to show this for the next level. Show this.’. And AAU coaches, high school coaches, relatives, family – good intentioned – will say if you’re not playing, ‘Is that the right spot for you’, or, ‘get out of there’. Again, this is all part of it and all well intentioned. There is a place and time for all that, but in the middle of the season when you’re in a race and you’re trying to do it, now isn’t the time. Now is the time to just, to whatever role you’re given, serve it to the fullest. Be in, because you’ll embrace and remember these are my teammates and this is a special time and they’re in a great place in terms of that. So just a caution to that to try and guard your heart and mind, and as hard as this is it’s going to serve you well if you handle it well. Those who things are going well, be grateful, and those guys who are maybe not getting the roles they want, just keep fighting, and you’re all valued. You’re all important.”

“That’s real talk,” Bennett added. “I just wish that it was not so difficult. I wish I could waive a magic wand and everybody’s playing 40 minutes and it’s good, but that’s not how it is.”

Having to wait in Coach Bennett’s program is nothing new, and Coach Bennett said it is good to have past success stories to draw from.

“Jay Huff. Devon Hall. De’Andre Hunter redshirted. I can go down the list,” Bennett told ‘Coach’s Corner’ host Dave Koehn. “Everybody’s got a different path. Again, there’s always decisions that have to be made. All those things. I get all that. Anyways, I just encourage them. That’s always heavy on my heart.

“These kids come in. These young men, they work hard, they have dreams, and just some of them can’t get what you want, and that’s hard because you know that they desperately want it. It’s all part of it. I think the guys that deal with that are better served and well adjusted for life beyond basketball, far better than the ones that everything has been great for.”

Recruiting Question

Coach Bennett was asked during his radio show if he will target an athletic “rim protector” or on-ball defender with the one available scholarship he has for the 2021-22 season.

“Too early to say,” answered Bennett. “So much depends. Now, fortunately Kadin (Shedrick), he did practice and he suited up and warmed up. We can use him now. I feel so bad. He missed so much of the summer and a big chunk in the fall. Then he started getting some opportunity and then boom, he was out for a month and lost weight. He’s starting to get back to it from a conditioning and strength – that stuff has taken its toll – but he’s active. He’s long. You’ve seen him. As he gets stronger I think he can be a rim protector and he can do some things. I do like our on-ball defense with Reece and Kihei. I think those two guys are pretty good, and I think Casey can guard it and Trey’s getting better with his slides. But it’ll just be at that time. We signed one player and we’ll see what happens after the season. There’s a lot of decisions to be made. It depends what happens with rules. Are they gonna pass the one-time transfer where you don’t have to sit? All that stuff will make recruiting, make coaching teams, different and strange.”

Four-star wing Taine Murray, a native of New Zealand, is currently the lone class of 2021 signee the Hoos have.

More News & Notes

– Virginia had its first ACC Player of the Week selection this season on Monday, when the conference tabbed Sam Hauser with the designation as a result of his performances in wins over NC State and Pitt.

The 6’8” redshirt senior was nearly perfect from the field against Pittsburgh, making 8-of-9 field goals (including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc) and 4-of-4 free throws on his way to scoring 23 points. Important as well was his defense on Panthers star forward Justin Champagnie, who managed 18 points and 10 boards but was challenged by Hauser, particularly in the second half as UVA gained separation.

Sam Hauser has been terrific offensively. That’s to be expected. It’s his improving defense that is surprising recently. ~ Photo courtesy Erin Edgerton/The Daily Progress

“I think it’s a good representation (of defensive development), and I’ve worked hard at it,” Hauser said of his defensive performance against Champagnie. “Obviously, there’s still some improvement to be had, but I think I played pretty solid in the end and made him work for his shots. He’s a great player. Hats off to him- he still had a really good game with a double-double, so I just tried to make it as difficult as I could for him.”

“He’s improved his lateral quickness,” Bennett said of Hauser during his radio show. “He worked with Coach Curtis. He embraces the challenges in practice and he’s very hard on himself if he gets beat. He really pushes himself. That’s rare, and it’s why he’s a good player and why we have to have him on the floor.”

As noted, Hauser is the first UVA player to notch an ACC Player of the Week honor in 2020-21. UVA has yet to have a player receive ACC Rookie of the Week honors, though point guard Reece Beekman has been a major contributor. UVA’s scheduled opponent this Saturday (Feb. 13) is UNC, which has three players who have earned ACC Rookie of the Week honors – post Day’Ron Sharpe, guard RJ Davis and guard Caleb Love. Love has received the honor two of the past three weeks.

Click here to view Coach Bennett’s February 8 ‘Coach’s Corner’ in its entirety. Click here to catch UVA Associate Head Coach Jason Williford on Packer & Durham. Coach Williford tackles topics ranging from UVA’s success under Bennett, how this year’s offense stacks up to past teams, his own professional accomplishments and more.

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