Talk of large freshman class dominates discussion at Virginia men's basketball media day
Throughout the next few weeks we'll talk more about the upcoming Virginia men's basketball season, but for now, here's a sneak peek at the report that will appear in tomorrow's print edition on the squad's media day ...
There was a familiarity to the ambiguity that surrounded the Virginia men’s basketball media day at John Paul Jones Arena. Cavaliers Coach Tony Bennett, who is entering his second season at the helm, said that his press conference Wednesday felt similar to the one he participated in when he was first introduced at the school in April 2009.
Back then, Bennett didn’t know how quickly the key contributors on his new roster would adapt to his schemes and have a firm grasp on how they would play together in his system. A year later, the Cavaliers are rolling out a six-man freshman class, many of whom will be asked to take on significant roles almost immediately, as Virginia attempts to build off of last season’s 15-16 performance.
“With this many newcomers, there is a starting over,” Bennett said. “But it is a process. I’ve said that all along, and this is part of it. But there’s a little bit of uncertainty what to expect with how guys will adjust and how quickly they’ll adjust.”
The group includes three guards – Billy Baron, K.T. Harrell and Joe Harris – and three forwards – James Johnson, Akil Mitchell and Will Regan – that represent six different states spanning from Rhode Island to California.
Aside from acclimating to the speed of the college game, Virginia’s freshmen – which, including walk-on Thomas Rogers, constitute seven of the 13 players on Virginia’s roster – must digest the defensive principles and strategy that serve as the crux of Bennett’s approach to the game.
Despite finishing 5-11 in Atlantic Coast Conference play, the Cavaliers ranked No. 4 in the conference in points allowed per game (67.5). Senior forward Mike Scott – the team’s leading returning scorer and rebounder – said learning Bennett’s pack-line defense took some time, and Bennett stated several times that he and his staff will have to be patient with the young group.
At one point Wednesday, Bennett was asked to provide a brief synopsis of each newcomer. He spoke of Baron’s physical maturity, of Harrell’s composure and of Harris’s quick release. He noted Regan’s understanding of the game, Mitchell’s versatility and Johnson’s aggressiveness.
“I didn’t say anything defensively about this group because I don’t think they have a clue defensively what it will take to play the way we need to,” Bennett said. “They’re willing to work at it, but again, you talk about the anticipation that’s needed and the positioning and the getting it inside of your mind that it becomes part of your will, (that) will be our job. But they’re willing, and that’s what’s good.”
Mitchell said there have been a few times during team workouts in recent weeks when coaches and players “just had to stop and be like, ‘What just happened?’”
That might become a common refrain in the coming months, given an early-season schedule that includes road games at Stanford, Minnesota and Virginia Tech, as well as an appearance a Maui Invitational field that features Michigan State, Kentucky and Connecticut.
“There’s a lot of exposure games out there,” Scott said of Virginia’s schedule. “I think it’s good. I think it’s great for us.”
Bennett said the key for him will be to keep “a long-range picture in mind.” He has been through the process of integrating a large group of freshmen into a team as a player (Wisconsin-Green Bay) and as an assistant (Wisconsin and Washington State), experiences he believes will help guide him this year.
With the early departure of Sylven Landesberg, the transfers of Jeff Jones and Tristan Spurlock and the graduation of Jerome Meyinsse, the Cavaliers will be without three of their top five scorers from last season. Virginia’s sizable freshman contingent understands that equates to higher – and more immediate – expectations.
“We definitely realize that pressure,” Harrell said. “I think we accept that pressure and we take it in and we work as hard as we possibly can when we come out here at practice and work out.”
| October 6, 2010; 4:56 PM ET
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