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Virginia welcomes great expectations

Mike Scott

Senior guard Sammy Zeglinski still has nightmares about last year's ACC Tournament.

The Virginia men's basketball team suffered a stunning first-round exit from that tournament by squandering a 10-point lead in the final 42 seconds against Miami. Zeglinski missed two free throws and committed two turnovers during the improbable implosion, and the memory still haunts him and his teammates.

"I was just shocked," senior forward Mike Scott said. "You think you just take care of the ball and make free throws, you win the game. I tried to erase that game from my memory."

As he enters his third season with the Cavaliers, coach Tony Bennett hopes his players do not erase that loss, but instead channel its pain into hunger.

"That's gotta be fuel for you in that offseason," Bennett said. "Whenever you're a little tired or you don't feel like working that much harder or shooting extra free throws, replay that one in your mind. If that doesn't motivate you then you're in the wrong program."

Six months after that March meltdown, Bennett believes his program has a legitimate chance at March Madness. After finishing 15-16 overall and 5-11 in conference play during the coach's inaugural 2009-10 campaign, the Cavaliers posted a winning 16-14 record last year. This season's team is already receiving votes in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and preseason pundits picked Virginia to finish fourth in the ACC.

"I think out of my years here we have our best chance to [make the NCAA Tournament]," Bennett said. "I think we improved from our first to our second year and now I expect to be better this year... I don't get too hung up in the early projections, but I want our guys to not shy away from those and expect to be a better team."

Last year, Bennett gave four true freshmen regular playing time, and the Cavaliers' inexperience hurt them during tight games. Virginia's most notable collapse may have come during the ACC Tournament, but that loss was not the only time the team crumbled during the closing minutes. The Cavaliers lost second-half leads during four other conference matchups, and they hope an added year of maturation can reverse that trend.

"I think the guys should have some confidence from the experience they gained," Bennett said. "They were competitive and successful at times, and then certainly the areas where we fell short, when we didn't finish games or we struggled down the stretch ... we use that as motivation going into this year."

Virginia missed more than just experience last season - it also lacked a legitimate scoring option during crunch time. Bennett's patented pack-line defense consistently kept the team competitive, but the Cavaliers' sluggish offense struggled to a conference-worst 61.9 points per game.

Then-senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan led the team with 13.5 points per game but never found the consistency needed from a go-to scorer. The streaky shooter dropped 21 points one night against Clemson but went 3-for-15 from the field a week later against Florida State; he shot 11-for-12 against Howard but 1-for-12 during a loss to Seattle.

It's "really important to have [a go-to scorer]," Bennett said. "When you don't, you're going to come against it because that happens a lot in games late in shot clocks [and at the] end of the games when the defenses really tighten up. It's just someone who can get to the lane and make a play. That's where it affected us the most."

Scott looks to fill that void this season, as he returns for a fifth year after receiving a medical hardship waiver. Scott suffered a season-ending ankle injury Dec. 22 but posted 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per game before being sidelined. Although Bennett recognize that Scott's return cannot solve every offensive malady, the forward does add another dimension to the attack. Without Scott last year, Virginia relied heavily on perimeter shooting, and the team's success hinged on its touch from behind the arc. The Cavaliers finished first in the ACC in three-point shooting but 11th in overall field goal percentage, so Scott's interior presence creates a more reliable scoring source.

"Our strength was our ability to shoot outside and score from our perimeter," Bennett said. "We really tried to do that, and we didn't throw the ball inside as much. So just closer shots, higher percentages - I think those go hand in hand. I think Mike will be able to do that, draw the fouls and things that I hope will help us shoot at a higher percent and get some of those easier baskets."

Scott's return to the lineup revitalizes the entire roster but especially aids sophomore forward Joe Harris. During his freshman season, Harris often compensated for Scott's absence by playing power forward against bigger defenders. Harris still finished third on the team with 10.4 points per game, but the natural swingman can hone that shooting ability in his more comfortable small forward position.

Scott's ability to dominate inside also opens the outside for Virginia's shooters. Last year, Zeglinski attempted more than two-thirds of his shots from behind the arc, and with Scott commanding extra attention in the paint, opposing defenders can no longer camp around the three-point line.

Zeglinski may still have nightmares about last season, but he also knows this year's reality can be different.

"It's one of those things that you've got to let go, just learn from it," Zeglinski said. "I think we all learned from it. We're just gonna have to finish out games this season. I think with our experience, it will help us. We're ready for this season, we're not really worried about what happened last season"