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A fresh beginning

Harrell, Johnson headline Bennett

If they succeed, they will be lauded as this year's "Diaper Dandies." If they struggle, they will be discounted as too young and inexperienced. No matter how the season ends, though, Virginia's six freshmen recruits will enter it with the same goal - to revive Cavalier basketball.

"I wanna help change what's going on at this school and sort of rebuild and bring back that old Virginia status," freshman guard KT Harrell said. "I know that's what coach [Tony] Bennett wants, and that's what I'm just trying to be a part of."

There is a certain irony to the idea that the men's basketball team must rely on a new set of players to restore "that old Virginia status." Given Virginia's current state, however, the new faces may be what it takes - especially considering ranked them as the nation's 20th best recruiting class.

Bennett's six recruits include guards Harrell, Joe Harris and Billy Baron, as well as forwards James Johnson, Akil Mitchell and Will Regan. They join a depleted Cavalier team that finished ninth in the ACC last year and is picked to finish 11th this season in the preseason coach's poll. The Cavaliers lose guard Sylven Landesberg, who led the team with 17.3 points per game last season, as well as key players Jerome Meyinsse and Jeff Jones.

Redshirt junior Sammy Zeglinski, who led Virginia in three-pointers, assists and steals last season, is expected to miss about five more weeks after undergoing knee surgery Oct. 19. Virginia easily could panic about the gaping holes it must fill. Bennett knows, however, those holes may be a blessing in disguise for the freshmen itching to play alongside sophomore guard Jontel Evans in the backcourt.

"For the opportunity to play, yeah it is [positive] because they're gonna be thrown into the fire," Bennett said. "At the end of this year when Sammy gets back healthy and our team starts to gel, those experiences will be valuable. Anytime you get experience that's invaluable."

With the addition of walk-on Thomas Rogers, Virginia's roster features seven freshmen. In addition to learning Bennett's renowned pack-line defense, then, the players are still adjusting to life in college.

"I think coming here was a big transition," Harrell said. "It's not as easy as some people may think. There's a lot of different things that go on here that I wasn't really accustomed to, like the amount of work that we do ... I still got a lot of learning to do."

And for these seven freshmen, the academic transition is not even the most demanding one.

"Don't get me wrong, school is tough here," said Johnson, a 6-foot-9 forward. "But school work is school work - you study, you do your homework and you hand in your assignments on time and you're good. But the physical side of the game over here, it's definitely something I've never really experienced before."

Although the adjustment has been physically draining, Harris said the class has embraced the culture of Virginia basketball, adding that his fellow freshmen "have really rubbed off on [him] and made [him] work a lot harder."

This attitude is the kind Bennett hopes will help transform the program - and it seems the team has the talent to do so. During their senior years of high school, Harrell, a 6-foot-4 guard, and Harris, a 6-foot-6 guard, were named Alabama Class 4A Player of the Year and Mr. Basketball in the state of Washington, respectively, while the 6-foot-8 Regan was the New York State Class A Player of the Year.

Harrell's accomplishment may be the most impressive considering neither he nor Johnson played basketball after transferring during their junior years of high school. Following his senior season, Johnson was named a McDonald's All-American nominee. Both players were listed as top-100 recruits by ESPNU and

"The constant recurring theme is first you wanna start getting people of character, young men that fit what Virginia's about ... and they have a strong will to turn this around," Bennett said. "Honestly, that's what I want to instill in these guys - an insatiable desire to make Virginia basketball."

Bennett knows from experience how to motivate such a young group - he was one of five freshmen recruits when he played for his father, Dick, at Wisconsin-Green Bay, and reeled in six recruits during his first year at Washington State.

"I'm accustomed to being part of a big incoming class," Bennett said. "[The Washington State] group struggled - I remember early, we went through some battles. But there was a completeness and a resiliency in that group that I believe is in this group."

After their early struggles, the Washington State freshmen advanced to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen in 2008. Although Virginia's freshmen may face their own share of struggles, they believe they can have a similar impact on their university.

"I think we can do special things - we're a special class," Mitchell said. "I think all of us feel it. We all share the same motivation and the same inspiration"


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