NCAA grants Scott fifth year because of medical hardship
Senior hopes to use extra year to improve chance of playing professionally
When senior forward Mike Scott decided to undergo season-ending ankle surgery, most viewed the news as a crippling blow to both the Virginia basketball team and its best player's career. Everyone thought that Scott's promising development on the court - reflected in his team-leading 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per game this season - was either confronting a serious road block or coming to an end. Everyone, that is, except Mike Scott.
Despite the anguish that comes with separation from the game he loves, Scott remains upbeat about his future. Because Scott will only have played in 10 of his team's 31-plus games this season, the NCAA has granted him a hardship waiver that will allow him to participate in the 2011-12 season as a fifth-year senior. He is convinced that the extra year will better his chances of extending his basketball career beyond the college level.
"There's still definitely room for improvement," Scott said. "I don't think I was really on people's radar for me to just say 'I'm done with college. I'm just gonna try to get my degree and go play professional basketball.' I don't think I was out there or ready yet. So I think another year of improvement with the coaches to get me quicker and stronger. I think that will help better my chances of playing professional basketball."
In the meantime, though, Scott keeps his focus on a team that is struggling to stay afloat in the big-bodied ACC. Without their most seasoned veteran, the Cavaliers (11-8, 2-3) must look to different sources of leadership on the floor. Fellow senior captain Mustapha Farrakhan has embraced his added responsibility wholeheartedly, averaging a team-leading 16.2 points per game during Scott's absence. Junior center Assane Sene - the seven-footer suddenly deemed the team's go-to big man - also has stepped up his game in response to his newfound duties as the squad's primary post presence. Freshmen forwards Akil Mitchell and Will Regan have seen more minutes, as well, while Bennett elected to retain freshman forward James Johnson's redshirt. Scott, meanwhile, continues to feel a responsibility of his own.
"I'm still trying to be a vocal leader," Scott said. "Still trying to be a captain, still have that role of being a leader."
Scott is not the only member of the team who has faced an uphill battle in the wake of surgery this season. Redshirt junior guard Sammy Zeglinski - who also will return next season as a fifth-year senior - sat out the season's first seven games after undergoing an operation on his left knee Oct. 19. Rather than mope around during his time away from the court, Zeglinski took an active role in helping his teammates from the sideline.
"Even though you can't play, you still can contribute a lot from the bench by being able to see things and helping teammates," Zeglinski said. "Mike has done a great job of that so far. When he has surgery, it's going to be tough and I'm going to talk to him about that. I'm sure he'll be all right."
Zeglinski and company have performed admirably during Scott's absence, compiling a 5-4 record that included Saturday's decisive win against Georgia Tech. Even in their three ACC losses, the Cavaliers built substantial second-half leads, an impressive feat for an undersized team also dealing with a hobbled Will Sherrill, who was recovering from a broken fibula. Still, in the 10 games since Scott underwent his Dec. 16 arthroscopic left ankle surgery to remove loose pieces of cartilage, Virginia has won the rebounding battle just twice, against Iowa State and LSU.
Without Scott, who was putting together an All-ACC caliber season, Virginia coach Tony Bennett has been forced to experiment with an array of different rotations. His use of four-guard lineups has produced particular success, proving most successful when its guards are shooting well from the outside. Sharp shooters like freshman guards Joe Harris and KT Harrell and Farrakhan bolstered a 10-for-15 three-point shooting performance against the Yellow Jackets, including a scorching 7-for-8 streak in the first half. Although the Jackets still grabbed more boards than the Cavaliers did, Harrell maintains that the team's guard-heavy lineups work best in employing the team's strengths on offense.
"When we have four guards in, it doesn't hurt us offensively," Harrell said. "We have guys who are versatile and can play one through four. So it actually helps us offensively to push it in transition and find mismatches on offense."
Scott also sees positives in the play of his teammates.
"I think our team so far has adapted well," Scott said. "Everyone's trying to make each other better. We're trying to just grow and not let any negativity or outside influence distract us. We're trying to leave other people out of it and stay close to one another."
With next year's roster including Scott - who has deferred his graduation to December - Virginia will only see two players exhaust their eligibility this spring - Farrakhan and Sherrill. Scott and Zeglinski - who both turn 23 this summer - think they can help next year's team reach new heights by sharing their experience with their younger teammates.
But for now, the Cavaliers can only dwell on the present, meaning they must try to avoid thinking about the goals they could have accomplished with Scott still in the lineup. During Bennett's first season at Virginia in 2009-10, the squad finished 15-16. With a healthy Scott, Virginia would have had a strong chance of surpassing that victory total this season.
"We absolutely miss Mike," Bennett said. "But there are no other options but to adjust, and I think the guys have done a better job of saying, 'OK, alternate ways to get baskets,' paint touches ... So we have to be a little more unconventional without Mike, and I think so far the guys have adjusted."
Scott said his ankle injury has a direct correlation to the high ankle sprain he suffered his freshman year. His second surgery - scheduled for Jan. 30 - will perform additional cartilage work and remove impinging bone spurs.
Yet even with surgery and a fresh new season on the horizon, Scott and his teammates can only think about one thing: beat Maryland tomorrow.