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New recruits make immediate impact

Cavaliers seek to rebuild after losing talented transfers, graduates; lineup to feature highly regarded, inexperienced freshman class

When Virginia hired Tony Bennett to revitalize a flailing men’s basketball program in March 2009, the coach understood his rebuilding project would require time.

For the cycle to work properly, however, the players must stick around. Although Bennett’s team tallied 22 wins and an NCAA Tournament berth in 2012, a rash of transfers and graduations has forced Bennett to face an unexpected obstacle: relying on freshmen and unproven players.

“It’s a reality — it’s a realistic possibility that you can lose guys,” Bennett said. “You never go into that year planning it … but losing some of those transfers has made us more inexperienced, and I think that’s the challenge.”

Future stars K.T. Harrell and James Johnson transferred last season, compounding the graduation of standout Mike Scott, sharpshooter Sammy Zeglinski and 7-foot bigman Assane Sene. Now the squad Bennett once envisioned as savvy and battle-hardened will rely on several untested freshmen to log significant minutes.

New Kids on the Block… and the Perimeter
Virginia’s freshman class arrives amid plenty of acclaim. Bennett’s 2012 recruiting haul features three ESPN Top 100 recruits, including guard Justin Anderson, Gatorade’s 2012 Maryland Player of the Year. An uber-athletic, 6-foot-6-inch slasher who posted almost 18 points per game as a high school senior, Anderson hopes to battle sophomore guards Paul Jesperson and Malcolm Brogdon for minutes in a system that values tall, physically imposing perimeter players.

Fellow prize recruits forward Evan Nolte and center Mike Tobey are also likely to garner ample playing time. Nolte’s 6-foot-8-inch frame and long-range prowess make him an appealing inside-out option. The 6-foot-11-inch, 227-pound Tobey fuses size with a deft outside touch that should help him partially mitigate the loss of Scott and Sene.

“With Assane leaving, Mike leaving and then the transfer of James, there’s an opportunity for a guy to come in,” Bennett said. “I definitely plan on [Tobey] being part of that rotation, and that’s a good opportunity for him to grow.”

With senior point guard Jontel Evans and Brogdon currently out with injuries, freshman point guard Taylor Barnette and redshirt freshman point guard Teven Jones could aid the Cavaliers as early as Friday evening’s season-opener against George Mason. The two form a portrait of contrasts. Barnette is a tall, stringy guard with rebounding ability and a silky jump shot; Jones is a smaller, stockier speedster who averaged seven assists as a high school junior. But both have worked, with the help of Evans, to adapt to their new coach’s half-court offensive schemes.

“[Evans has] really helped out guys like Taylor and Teven as far as trying to understand the point guard type that coach Bennett wants,” Harris said.

The freshmen are a source of great excitement for the future of Virginia basketball — even if they still have a lot to learn.

“Their upside is incredible,” junior forward Akil Mitchell said. “A lot of the freshmen need to be a lot more physical and a lot more vocal, but things will change once the game starts and you realize how tough this game is.”

A restless defense
Bennett’s relentless style of half-court man-to-man defense limited opposing offenses last season to just 54.2 points per game, the second-best mark in the NCAA. For freshmen such as Nolte, who thrived in offensively focused high school basketball programs, Virginia’s commitment to defense presents more than a challenge. It presents a whole new conceptualization of basketball.

“When I came in here, it made me feel like I didn’t play any defense whatsoever the last years of my life,” Nolte said.

Bennett stresses continuous motion and simplicity in his defensive training, which Nolte said accounted for about “90 percent” of practice time during camp. Far from practicing windmill dunks or elaborate schemes, Virginia’s newcomers have spent the majority of their time mastering a demanding defense.

“I think we all understand the concepts and what we have to do, now it’s just time to implement them in a game situation,” Anderson said. “I think we have a really good chance to be a great defensive team this year if we continue to work hard.”

Studying Abroad
If the Cavaliers do challenge for an NCAA tournament bid this year, they will undoubtedly credit the 10-day team retreat to Europe this August, where the team competed across Amsterdam, Bruges, Antwerp and Paris. For the freshmen — one of whom had yet to even receive his driver’s license at the time of the trip — the 10 days of intensive practices on a foreign continent helped build camaraderie.

“I think it’s an advantage … seeing them in a competitive setting and then certainly the other side of just being able to hang out on that trip,” Bennett said. “That’s valuable for a team this young.”

More than an opportunity for memories, the trip enabled Virginia’s rookies to hone their basketball skills — and learn Bennett’s defense — in an environment far removed from the hustle and bustle of college life.

“I couldn’t imagine me coming in now and having the inexperience that I had before that trip … it would’ve been very overwhelming,” Nolte said. “During the year is a lot different than the summer anyway because of the classes; it’s just so much to keep track of.”

Bennett expects his new contingent of talented teenagers to form the team’s nucleus during the next four years. And if they can maximize their undeniable potential, embrace Bennett’s tenacious defense and draw from their European experience, this year’s freshman class could help the Cavaliers return to their 2012 glory sooner rather than later.

“Doing it under the lights in front of people against better competition, those will be the tests,” Bennett said. “But the makings of a nice team are all there for sure.”

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