Although many words could aptly describe Virginia’s performance in back-to-back road defeats last week, “healthy” is not among them. In dropping games to Wake Forest and Clemson the Cavaliers managed just 96 total points, reached the foul line just 20 times and generally fell short of the lofty standard coach Tony Bennett’s players set with a gutsy 61-52 win against North Carolina Jan. 6.
To further add insult to injury — or in this case, further injury to injury — a slew of physical ailments are currently afflicting the Cavaliers, continuing an alarming trend that has plagued Bennett and his team since last season. As the Cavaliers prepare to play Florida State this Saturday and vault themselves back toward the top of the ACC standings, Bennett hopes a week reprieve will help cure the on-court woes and stop the injuries of three significant contributors — junior forward Akil Mitchell, sophomore forward Darion Atkins and senior point guard Jontel Evans — from derailing another promising campaign.
“We just have to use this week to try and improve in the areas that have been hurting us in the last couple of games that we’ve dropped on the road,” Bennett said. “So we’ll try to use it well and get the guys fresh and healthy as possible.”
The squad’s injury issues this season, perhaps, pale in comparison to those of 2011-12. Last season defensive stalwart center Assane Sene broke his right ankle 17 games through the season, top perimeter threat Joe Harris played the season’s final eight contests with a massive cast on his broken left hand and Bennett had just seven scholarship players total at his disposal by season’s end. Still, this year’s crop may be wielding enough of an impact to hinder Virginia at a juncture in the season when maximum firepower is almost vital.
Amidst early-season concerns about who would fill the sizable shoes of graduated forward Mike Scott, Mitchell’s growth into a viable offensive option and formidable low-post defender stands out as one of the highlights of the Virginia season so far. His 9.3 rebounds per game and six double-doubles lead the Cavaliers, and his defensive rating — an advanced estimation of how many points he allows per 100 defensive possessions — ranks first in the ACC. But after severely spraining his ankle in practice before the North Carolina game, Mitchell admits that the injury has hampered his mobility and disrupted his game.
“I’m not at 100 percent; I can’t explode like I really want to, but other than that I feel fine,” Mitchell said. “It’s just getting back in a rhythm because I can’t really practice.”
Mitchell has gamely played 31 minutes in each of the three games since incurring the injury, averaging a respectable eight points and 10 boards a game. Nevertheless, when Virginia’s perimeter offense struggled on the road against Wake Forest and Clemson, Mitchell was unable to generate the slump-busting offensive punch in the post that powered the Cavaliers during the first two months of the season.
“When I get inside touches and when I can score around the basket, it makes jump shots easier; it just gets the offense flowing a little better,” Mitchell said. “I feel like I’ve been in a little bit of a slump offensively the last two or three games, a little bit out of rhythm, and I take some of that accountability on my shoulders.”
Whereas Mitchell’s ankle sprain has certainly affected his play, Atkins’ balky right shin has utterly ravaged his. After playing stingy defense, averaging 8.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per contest and complementing Mitchell nicely on the block in his first 12 games, Atkins has mustered just 1.5 points and 1.5 rebounds in his last four since his shin splints began. In Saturday’s loss to Clemson, he had two points and a rebound in 15 ineffective minutes.
“When you watch it on tape and just seeing him, he’s certainly favoring his leg, and he’s not the same as he was earlier,” Bennett said.
Bennett confirmed on his radio show Monday that an MRI revealed a “stress reaction” in the shin and that Atkins is doubtful to appear Saturday, leaving Bennett without one of his team’s defensive lynchpins.
“I feel it’s unfortunate for him,” Bennett said. “When he’s not able to get out and show on screens as much or be as active, it affects him and probably affects our defense when he’s on the floor more than most guys.”
Virginia’s injury woes, of course, are not limited to the front court alone. Widely expected to provide veteran savvy and defensive prowess at the point entering this year, Evans has never quite recaptured his 2011-12 form since breaking his right foot in late September. After playing all 94 games the Cavaliers played and starting 70 in his first three years, Evans has appeared in only eight this season, twice missing extended periods of action after attempting to return — including all but one game in December. Even when on the court, the floor general and 2012 All-ACC defensive team selection has sputtered. He is averaging nearly as many turnovers as he did last season, despite playing 10 fewer minutes per contest, and only half as many steals as he finally starts to round into full health.
“He’s got to work on taking care of the ball, making good decisions, but it’s been good for him and good to see him out there and not have any setbacks,” Bennett said.
With injuries beginning to deplete the Cavaliers this season as they did in 2012, Mitchell hopes he and his teammates can stay healthy during the season’s homestretch and replenish the intensity which spurred Virginia to an 11-3 start.
“You’ve got some guys banged up, myself included,” Mitchell said. “[It’s important] just knowing that you’ve got to take care of your body and then be able to bring the same intensity.”