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Squad kicks off season

Cavaliers battle South Carolina State at John Paul Jones Arena Sunday

The Virginia men's basketball team looks to begin its season on a high note Sunday afternoon against South Carolina State, its first game since a disastrous ACC Tournament departure last year, in which the squad surrendered a 10-point lead in the final minute against Miami.

South Carolina State finished 10-22 overall and eighth in the MEAC last season, its worst record under coach Tim Carter during his four-year tenure.

The Bulldogs lost two starters to graduation but return senior guard Brandon Riley, senior forward Omar Sanders and junior guard Khalif Toombs. Riley finished second on the team with 9.4 points per game, behind then-senior guard Darnell Porter.

The Bulldogs added depth by bringing in three freshman and two transfers, all of whom will be fighting for playing time at the onset of the season.

The Cavaliers plan to counter questions about court time by leaning heavily on their biggest known quantity, senior forward Mike Scott. The Cavaliers lost Scott last season to an ankle injury in December. Before the injury, he averaged 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, so his loss was a serious letdown to a team that was performing well.

"We're all really happy that he's back and healthy and we just can't wait," senior guard Sammy Zeglinski said of Scott's return. "He demands a lot of attention down there and we have a lot of shooters on this team as well, so I think it's going to be very helpful to have him in the paint and defensively as well."

Junior guard Jontel Evans said Scott is eager to show that he and his Cavalier teammates are true contenders in the ACC - and potentially the postseason.

"I was his roommate last year, we used to talk, and I know he has a chip on his shoulder, he's been taking mental notes," Evans said. "He hasn't played since December and he wants to show guys that [he] can still play. I know this is a big year for him and us."

If Virginia hopes to have success this season, it needs reliable free throw shooting during the closing minutes of games. The team had a 69 percent free-throw percentage last season, which proved to be their downfall in the ACC Tournament when Zeglinski missed his final two free throws.

"We've shot more free throws in the offseason," coach Tony Bennett said. "You're going to earn your confidence and your comfort level at the line in the offseason ... There's a point where you just have to step up and have success."

In addition to receiving votes in preseason top-25 polls, the Cavaliers are projected to finish fourth in the ACC. The team hopes that its three talented freshmen, guard Paul Jesperson, guard Malcolm Brogdon and forward Darion Atkins can mesh with returning starters to forge stronger bonds than last season's squad.

"Last year, I think we didn't have a group of guys who actually wanted to hang out with each other off the court, and I think off-the-court things actually affect on the court," sophomore guard KT Harrell said. "Coach Bennett always talks about how a divided house is not going to work. Team chemistry is going to determine how far we go."

The Sunday season opener will tip off at 2 p.m. at John Paul Jones Arena.

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