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Evans, freshmen seek second win following disappointing loss

Team welcomes Redhawks after loss, worst three-game start since 1998

The challenge for the Virginia men’s basketball team entering the season was to integrate a talented cast of freshmen with a small stable of returning veterans to weather the losses of Mike Scott, Assane Sene and Sammy Zeglinski. The challenge now, after a sobering 1-2 start to the season, is to pick up the pieces quickly as the team prepares to face Seattle (1-0, 0-0 WAC) Saturday.

Senior guard Jontel Evans and sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon, two players expected to be key contributors this season, have played a combined total of three minutes while recovering from foot injuries. That has left freshmen guards Taylor Barnette and Justin Anderson to be among four Cavalier freshmen starting at least one of the team’s first three games.

The formula for success this season was expected to revolve around strong play from Evans and Brogdon — along with juniors guard Joe Harris, forward Akil Mitchell and sophomore Darion Atkins — while the freshmen eased their way into collegiate competition. Instead, Barnette, Anderson, center Mike Tobey and forward Evan Nolte have been thrown straight into the fire.

All four freshmen have shown flashes of the ability that made the group one of the most heralded in Virginia history. Anderson, Tobey and Nolte were each ranked in ESPN’s top 100 recruits, and ESPN ranked the class seventh-best in the nation and first in the ACC.

The three top-100 recruits are all among the Cavaliers’ top six scorers, but the team results have been lacking. Virginia scored just 15 first-half points in its 59-53 loss to Delaware Tuesday on 22.2 percent shooting, the team’s lowest point total in a half since Dec. 30, 2010. The Cavaliers have yet to crack the 60-point mark in a game this season, and their 55.3 points-per-game average is the lowest in the ACC by more than 12 points.

“When shots aren’t falling, guys get a little panicky and we stopped almost running offense,” coach Tony Bennett said after the loss to Delaware. “The first chance the guy got, he tried to squirt one up and it didn’t look like anything we tried to work on.”

Harris and Mitchell have taken a more active role on the offensive end in the absence of Evans and Brogdon, but their efforts have not been enough to avoid the team’s worst three-game start since 1998. Harris leads the team with 18.0 points per game, seventh-best in the ACC, and Mitchell set new career highs Tuesday with 15 points and 13 rebounds. Nolte, Virginia’s third leading scorer, is averaging just 6.7 points per game.

Evans made a brief return Tuesday, playing three minutes and committing two turnovers without scoring. Brogdon remains out with his foot injury.

“The doctors cleared [Evans] and said no more than 10 minutes,” Bennett said. “He wanted to just get his feet wet, he obviously was a bit rusty, but see if that helps him as we progress.”

Evans, one of two returning starters along with Harris, averaged 7.3 points and 3.9 assists last season as the Cavaliers’ primary ball handler. In his absence, Barnette and Anderson have each been given a chance to start at point guard. The results have been shaky. Virginia is last in the ACC with 39 percent field goal shooting and the team has struggled to create open looks in half-court sets.

“[Evans is] our leader on the floor,” Mitchell said. “He’s our go-to offensively. It will be a lot of help when he’s back and we can go full court.”

Seattle is led by fourth-year coach Cameron Dollar, who led the Redhawks to a 12-15 finish last season, their second consecutive losing season. The team is entering its first season in the WAC after playing without a conference affiliation for four seasons.

Seattle graduated two of its top three scorers from last season in forwards Aaron Broussard and Eric Wallace, but still cruised to an 87-72 season-opening win against Montana State Sunday.

The Cavaliers edged the Redhawks last season 83-77 Dec. 21 in the lone matchup between the two schools in history. In that game, former Cavalier star Scott scored a career-high 33 points to give then-No. 24 Virginia its eighth straight victory.

“A lot of the offense was geared toward getting the ball to Mike in certain spots and letting him go to work,” Bennett said before the beginning of the Cavaliers’ season. “I think we’ll look a little different this year.”

Tipoff from John Paul Jones Arena is scheduled for 4 p.m.