Oct. 13, 2012
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Leaning on his crutches in the men's practice gym at John Paul Jones Arena, Jontel Evans exhorted his teammates.
"Talk on D, fellas, talk," Evans yelled at one point. Later he shook his head when a defensive breakdown led to an easy basket.
"That's lazy, man," said Evans, a member of the ACC's all-defensive team last season. "You're better than that."
With Jason Williford in Richmond for his sister's wedding, Tony Bennett was down an assistant coach for UVa's first official practice of 2012-13. Evans was more than happy to fill the role Friday evening.
The senior point guard, who had surgery Oct. 2 to repair a stress fracture in his right foot, will be sidelined for at least another month. Also out is the Cavaliers' No. 2 point guard, 6-5 sophomore Malcolm Brogdon, still recovering from March surgery on his left foot.
That left Bennett, who's heading into his fourth season as head coach, with 10 healthy scholarship players for the first practice: juniors Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris, sophomores Darion Atkins, Anthony Gill and Paul Jesperson, and freshmen Justin Anderson, Taylor Barnette, Teven Jones, Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey. (Gill, a transfer from South Carolina, must sit out this season.)
"A lot of youth out there, a lot of optimism," Bennett said after a spirited practice that began promptly at 5 p.m. and ended 2 hours and 40 minutes later.
The challenge for the Cavaliers now, Bennett said, is to "come back tomorrow and the next day with the same sort of focus and energy."
Bennett is still in his early 40s, but he's old enough to remember a time when a Division I coaching staff would not get an extended look at its players until the first day of practice.
Those days are gone. Under an NCAA rule that went into effect this year, men's teams in Division I were allowed to practice two hours per week when summer school was in session.
Moreover, the Wahoos were allowed 10 additional practices over the summer as they prepared for a trip to Europe, where in August they played five games against teams from the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
"This is the start in a way," Bennett said Friday night, "but we have the advantage of calling it a continuation to build upon what we already did from the summer and the trip, and I think we're in a better place than if we hadn't taken that European tour. So it was good to be, I guess, a little more advanced, and there were some good things that happened."
Mitchell said: "The guys looked good. It's not even really our first practice. We feel like we've been doing this for a while. I was proud of the young guys."
Thanks to the Europe tour, Mitchell said, the Cavaliers' first-year players "seem a lot calmer. They know what to expect from Coach Bennett. They know a little bit about the spots to be in and the right timing on things."
Even so, Anderson admitted to feeling overwhelmed at times.
"I hate being a freshman," he said during one drill. "My mind's moving too fast."
For the 6-8 Mitchell, who's likely to start in the frontcourt, this session felt different from the practices that kicked off the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons.
"Yeah," Mitchell said, smiling. "I'm not nervous at all. The first two years -- the first year especially -- I was really nervous, really anxious to get it going, but now I kind of know what to expect. I'm just coming at it from a different standpoint, trying to lead the guys instead of trying to learn as much."
With several guests looking on, including former UVa great Wally Walker and his son, practice began with a series of five-man weaves that ended with emphatic dunks by the 6-6 Harris, the 6-7 Anderson and the 6-8 Atkins. For most of the next hour, though, the focus was on defense, the cornerstone of Bennett's coaching philosophy.
"Too slow," Bennett instructed Barnette at one point. "You gotta be able to anticipate better than that."
In another drill, Barnette, well-covered by Harris, buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key.
"I'll live with that," Bennett said of his team's defensive effort on the play.
Mitchell said the `Hoos have the length and athleticism to excel on defense. For first-year players, though, becoming proficient in Bennett's Pack Line defense is never an easy process.
"There are some growing pains," Bennett said, "but if their heart is strong and they're willing to work, the beautiful thing about defense is you can make two or three mistakes in a defensive possession and still scramble and keep fighting and have a second and third effort and cover up for it. And that's what I'm trying to get them to understand: how to be so continuous, and don't worry if they make a mistake, because you can play your way out of it.
"Again, it's a mindset ... and we'll keep building on it. We know how important that is for us."
UVa opens the season Nov. 9 against George Mason in Fairfax. Evans is expected to miss that game, and Brogdon has yet to be cleared to practice, so he's at best questionable for the opener.
In the first practice, three players handled most of the point-guard duties.
"Taylor's playing it some, Teven some, and then Joe, and that's about it," Bennett said. "And we're trying to share the ball, in terms of having two-guard fronts, using the quick ball screen in the backcourt if there's pressure. That's challenging, but in some ways we're big in the guard corps when we do that. So you lose some things, but you also gain some things as well."
The 'Hoos are coming off a 22-10 season that included a trip to the NCAA tournament. The biggest loss from that team, of course, was 6-8 forward Mike Scott, who led UVa in scoring and rebounding and is now playing for the Atlanta Hawks. Bennett also must replace guard Sammy Zeglinski and center Assane Sene, but his roster is stocked with young talent.
"The makings of a nice team are all there, for sure," Bennett said at UVa's media day this week. "It's just, can it come together in the absence of a lot of upperclassmen? Can we overcome that? That'll be the challenge for us."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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