Bennett and Co. Face Challenges as Season Nears

VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM Malcolm Brogdon
VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM
Malcolm Brogdon
VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM

Oct. 11, 2012

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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The No. 1 point guard was on crutches, his right foot heavily wrapped, when he entered the men's practice gym at John Paul Jones Arena on Wednesday afternoon.

Nearby at JPJ was the No. 2 point guard, who no longer has to wear a protective boot on his left foot but is still recovering from the major surgery he had in early March.

For the University of Virginia men's basketball team, the early part of its fourth season under head coach Tony Bennett is likely to be, shall we say, interesting.

"Without either of those two, it'll be by committee on the offensive end, sharing the ball," Bennett told reporters at Virginia's media day.

Starting point guard Jontel Evans, the lone senior among UVa's scholarship players, had surgery Oct. 2 to repair a stress fracture in his right foot. Evans, who goes by "Bub," said Wednesday that he expects to miss the Nov. 9 opener against George Mason in Fairfax.

Eventually, Evans' backup this season figures to be Malcolm Brogdon. But the 6-5 sophomore, who can also play on the wing, only recently began jogging, and UVa's medical staff isn't sure when he'll be cleared to play again.

Is Brogdon likely to miss the opener?

"Hard to say," Bennett said. "I don't know. I wish I could tell you how long it'll be. There's certainly a chance of that, yes.

"There's a fair chance Jontel and Malcolm could be out. There's a chance maybe one of them could be back. And that isn't ideal. But we'll make the best of it if that happens."

The Cavaliers are coming off a 22-10 season that ended with a loss to Florida in the NCAA tournament. When UVa officially opens practice for the 2012-13 season Friday evening -- Division I men's teams have been working together two hours a week since last month -- Bennett's options at point guard will include 6-3 freshman Taylor Barnette, 6-0 redshirt freshman Teven Jones and 6-6 junior Joe Harris, as well as 5-11 senior walk-on Doug Browman.

"There's going to be healthy competition, especially without Malcolm and Jontel for this stretch," Bennett said, "healthy competition to see out of those guys who emerges for playing some minutes."

Browman said: "It's an opportunity for not just me, but for everybody to step up. Bub's the spearhead of our defense, and kind of the leader of the team, and Malcolm, he's an integral part too. So everybody's got to kind of shoulder the load a little bit until they get back."

Harris, the team's top returning scorer, has been a swingman and, occasionally, even a power forward for UVa. During the Wahoos' trip to Europe in August, however, Harris took several turns at the point, and he's played there in recent practices.

"Coach Bennett just kind of messes around and sees who'll bring the ball up the court," Harris said. "Sometimes he'll have me bring it up. Other times he'll have a two-guard front where Paul [Jesperson] and I just kind of work our way up the court. With Bub out, we've got to make some adjustments, and I know Coach doesn't want to throw any guys into the fire right away that don't really have the experience."

The powerfully built Evans is almost impossible to keep out of the lane, and he has developed an effective repertoire of floaters and pull-up jumpers. Where he may be missed most, though, is at the other end. Evans was named to the ACC's all-defensive team in 2011-12.

"Obviously it's going to be a difficult task, not having Bub out there defensively," Harris said, "and for guys like me to kind of fill his void defensively. But like Coach Bennett always says, it's not one guy on the ball. The philosophy behind the Pack Line defense is everybody against the ball."

Virginia's home opener is Nov. 12 against Fairfield, and "that's what I'm aiming for," Evans said Wednesday. "That's what I want, to come out and play in front of the home crowd again."

After Dr. David Diduch operated on him Oct. 2, UVa announced that Evans was expected to be sidelined six weeks. That timetable may change.

"I just got the news from the doctor today that I'm ahead of schedule in my recovery," Evans said, "and it might be a week early that I could come back."

In the meantime, Evans said, "I'm just trying to be positive, because six weeks is better than six months, and I'm trying to lead by example. Because you never know when one of my teammates can go down, and they can look at me and be like, `Bub was positive about everything, and I can do the same thing.' "

Brogdon, the Cavaliers' sixth man for much of last season, has tried to stay positive, too. That hasn't always been easy. His rehab stalled in August and September, and little progress was evident.

Over the past week, however, "things have definitely accelerated and are getting better rapidly," Brogdon said Wednesday. "And at this point we're very hopeful for my future and my recovery."

Harris said he's noticed that Brogdon "seems to be moving quite a bit better and more than he has in the past. And he's doing a lot of different things [with strength-and-conditioning coach Mike Curtis] that he hasn't done in the past, which is good to see."

How quickly he returns, Brogdon said, will depend largely on his pain level.

"Some days I come in and I'm really sore, some days I come in and I'm feeling great," he said. "But even on my great days I feel a certain level of pain, and it's about getting that level of pain down to a minimum and keeping it there and pushing as much as I can without raising that level of pain."

To finally see signs of tangible progress "makes me more excited," Brogdon said, "but also more frustrated, because I'm not out there yet, and I still have to go through a process. But I'll be out there soon."

Brogdon knows that, with Evans sidelined, this would be an ideal opportunity for him to gain experience as a college point guard. He also knows that "we have younger guys that could use the time and the reps, and I think it will play out to our benefit," Brogdon said.

Jones enrolled at UVa in January. He didn't play for the `Hoos last season but was able to practice with the team. That, coupled with his quickness, has put Jones ahead of Barnette defensively.

At the other end, Barnette may have the edge. He's a talented, if streaky, 3-point shooter with outstanding court sense. At Lexington Christian Academy in Kentucky, Barnette primarily played on the wing, but UVa recruited him as a combo guard, and he saw some time at the point during the Europe trip.

"It's been an adjustment," Barnette said Wednesday, "but it's something that I've got to get used to, and I'm learning, so I've just got to continue to get better with that."

The toughest part for him?

"Involving everybody," Barnette said. "I gotta learn to be more vocal, offensively and defensively. And you're running the team as a point guard, so you gotta get everybody in the right positions. So I gotta be more vocal."

The departures of Mike Scott, Sammy Zeglinski and Assane Sene, the Cavaliers' seniors last season, thrust Evans into a more prominent role in the program, and he's been making his voice heard, too.

"I've seen him mature," Bennett said. "That's the most rewarding thing [for a coach], and I think I've mentioned it to you guys before. When you're around these guys, you watch `em, and you see `em have moments of great success, and then you see them battle adversity, whether it's an injury or just a slump or whatever it is.

"You see how they respond and their maturity level, and I've seen Jontel, similar to how I saw Mike [Scott], just take a step in terms of having a balance, having a good perspective. His attitude's great, and I think he's excited. Again, he stuck it out, and he'll be an important piece this year for us."

UNBALANCED: Of the scholarship players who are eligible this season, one is a senior, two are juniors, three are sophomores, and five are freshmen. (Power forward Anthony Gill, a transfer from South Carolina, is sitting out the season. He'll be classified as a sophomore in 2013-14).

The roster would look different had guard KT Harrell and big man James Johnson not left the program last December. Harrell, now at Auburn, would have been a junior this season, and Johnson, now at San Diego State, a redshirt sophomore.

"I thought we would have at this stage more of a mature team," Bennett said. "I thought we'd have a number of upperclassmen, but because of the departures and transfers, that makes you have to take a step back and work with the younger guys, and 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.

"And I think that's the challenge. If we can overcome that, if those guys, because of the European trip, because of all the basketball they play [in the offseason], 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."