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Posted at 04:58 PM ET, 03/18/2012

Florida 71, Virginia 45: Three up, three down

The particulars of Virginia’s first NCAA tournament appearance in five years were unsightly, to say the least. Prior to Friday’s 71-45 beat-down by seventh-seeded Florida, the Cavaliers hadn’t lost by that wide of a margin in March since 1989 – and at least that game was in the Elite Eight.

But you’ve all had a few days to digest what happened and allow the sting of that defeat cool, so we’ll try not too granular of an approach to the final Three Up, Three Down of the 2011-12 season. Instead, we’ll wide the lens a little bit and try to capture the broader picture of what transpired over the past five months and what lies ahead next season.

After all, in his third season at the helm, Coach Tony Bennett did lead Virginia (22-10) to its most wins in a single season in the past 17 years. And he did so despite dealing with injuries and attrition that limited his number of available scholarship players to seven during the homestretch. So there’s plenty of material upon which Cavaliers fans can look back fondly when they recall this season.

There was Mike Scott and all of his impressive feats. There was Joe Harris and his gutsy play during the past month. There was the vast improvement demonstrated by Jontel Evans. And defense. There was plenty of that, too.

“It’s hard to say you feel good about that now, but getting here was an important step and the guys that are returning have to take this and use it as fuel in the offseason,” Bennett said Friday.

Three Up:

1) Mike Scott. Friday marked the 19th game this season in which the fifth-year senior forward led (or tied for the lead) the Cavaliers in both scoring and rebounding. It was the 25th time he led (or tied for the lead) the team in scoring. It was the 24th time he led (or tied for the lead) Virginia in rebounding. On the season, Scott accounted for 28.8 percent of the Cavaliers’ points and 25.7 percent of their rebounds.

So, yeah, there will be a rather large Mike Scott-shaped hole for the Cavaliers to fill, production-wise, next season. Scott picked up his second foul with 3 minutes 50 seconds to play in the first half Friday and immediately was subbed out of the game. Reserve forward Darion Atkins, a freshman, already had picked up two fouls in a 31-second span earlier in the first half, so he was unavailable. And that left Virginia to operate out of a four-guard lineup the rest of the opening period.

Next season, the Cavaliers will not be confined to a seven-man rotation by necessity. As of now, with the addition of four freshmen, Bennett will have 10 scholarship players available for the 2012-13 season opener. But it would appear that Atkins is in line to start alongside Mitchell in the front court, at least at the season’s outset. No reasonable Virginia fan will expect either of those two players to fully fill Scott’s shoes, but they’ll both need to step up considerably.

For Mitchell, that starts with being a more consistent producer. He finished with four points and five rebounds Friday, and that was on the heels of a 10-point, 12-rebound effort against North Carolina State in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. For Atkins, that starts with being far less foul-prone. That should come as he becomes more familiar with Bennett’s defensive system and the speed at which the college game is played.

2) Defense. I know this sounds odd, given that Virginia gave up 71 points and allowed Florida to shoot 52.8 percent from the field Friday. The interior defense no doubt was awful, and the Cavaliers’ perimeter players (including Jontel Evans) didn’t have the speed to keep up with the dribble penetration of Florida’s guards.

But I’ll continue to insist this even if the Virginia players and coaches continue to deny it: There is a cumulative effect to having to play with a seven-man rotation for a long period of time, and that effect is not a positive one. Yes, many other teams play with seven guys during the latter part of the season, and particularly in the postseason. But most of those teams are doing so by choice. Those coaches get to choose which seven players are in that rotation. Bennett didn’t have that luxury.

Four Virginia players logged between 969-999 minutes this season. Mike Scott, Joe Harris, Sammy Zeglinski, Jontel Evans and Akil Mitchell – the Cavaliers’ starting lineup Friday – combined to tally 72 percent of every minute Virginia was on the court this season. Toss in Malcolm Brogdon’s minutes, and those six players logged 81.8 percent of the Cavaliers’ available playing time. That’s a lot of wear and tear on a limited number of players.

Then take away Brogdon – he injured his left foot and did not play the final four games of the season. That left Bennett with two freshmen on the bench. One (Paul Jesperson) was supposed to redshirt this season. The other (Darion Atkins) was, as we’ve already discussed, prone to collecting fouls in rapid succession.

And all of that is to point out that Virginia’s defense, which had been a strength all season, faltered more often during the last few games of the season for a very understandable reason: The remaining players ran out of gas. It takes a lot of energy to play defense the way Bennett wants it played, and energy is not an infinite resource.

Friday’s game marked the fourth time this season Virginia allowed an opponent to shoot better than 50 percent from the field. It also was the third time in four games that that had occurred. Maybe it was a coincidence. I’m guessing it wasn’t.

Why is this in the Three Up section? Because Bennett will begin next season with six players with at least one full season of experience in the pack-line defense. And he’ll have a bench that includes five scholarship players. Between the experience and the ability to provide his main cogs ample rest when necessary, the Cavaliers should be able to play defense at a high caliber for an entire campaign. That would seem to bode well for Bennett and his team.

3) Jontel Evans. He’ll enter next season as the team’s lone senior and primary ball-handler. Before this season, that would have seemed like something to worry about. Now, though, it doesn’t seem nearly as ominous.

Evans demonstrated this season far more sound decision-making skills with the ball in his hand than he had at any point during his previous two seasons. His ability to penetrate into the paint and either finish (something else on which he showed significant improvement) or dish to an open teammate served the Cavaliers well this season and at times bailed them out when they were in need of someone to take the immense scoring load off Scott’s shoulders.

And, per usual, Evans played stingy defense for most of the season. But what was striking was Evans played stingy defense within Bennett’s system. In the past, Evans too often had gambled in an attempt to force a steal. Sometimes it paid off. Other times, it left the Cavaliers in bad positions and led to open shots/easy scores for opponents.

Evans was much more disciplined on the defensive end this season, which improved Virginia’s team defense and enabled Evans to conserve some energy. He was rewarded with a spot on the ACC’s all-defense squad, and he finished tied for second in the conference’s defensive player of the year voting.

Three Down:

1) Three-point shooting. The Cavaliers made 3 of 18 three-point attempts Friday. That’s 16.7 percent. That marked the 14th time this season Virginia made less than one-third of its three-point attempts in a single game and the seventh time this season Virginia shot in the teens (or worse) from beyond the three-point arc this season.

Especially given that the Cavaliers won’t have Mike Scott’s scoring presence in the post next season, the Cavaliers simply must shoot better from the perimeter if they’re going to succeed. Joe Harris is a solid three-point shooter and likely only will become a more accurate marksman as his career progresses.

But it can’t fall solely on his shoulders. Paul Jesperson and Malcolm Brogdon will need to step up in that regard. And if some of the freshmen can provide some long-range shooting relief, all the better for Bennett.

On the season, Virginia shot 33 percent from three-point range. The previous season – when the Cavaliers led the ACC in three-point shooting – they shot 38.8 percent from beyond the three-point arc. It would behoove them to return to somewhere near that level of long-range shooting in 2012-13.

2) Injury rehab. By Friday’s game, the padded wrap on Joe Harris’s broken left hand was a far thinner version of the one he’d been sporting a few weeks earlier. It would seem his hand is healing just fine, but one lingering question is whether he’ll need any sort of off-season procedure to tie up any loose ends. Harris had mentioned shortly after he broke the hand that that was a possibility, depending on how the healing process went during the final weeks of the season.

Clearly – and understandably – playing with the broken hand, even though it was his non-shooting hand, limited Harris’s effectiveness during the final month of the season. He shot 2 for 9 from the field Friday and 0 for 5 from three-point range. After injuring his hand on Feb. 11, Harris shot 33.9 percent from the field and 25.9 percent (7 for 27) from three-point range in the final eight games of the season.

Prior to the injury, Harris was shooting 47 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from three-point range.

Much less clear is Malcolm Brogdon’s path back to full health. Brogdon injured his left foot Feb. 17. He played in pain for three games after that, and then sat out the final four games of the season. He underwent corrective surgery on the broken foot March 7.

But since then, the team has not released any sort of information or timetable regarding Brogdon’s rehabilitation process. Through a team spokesman, Brogdon declined interview requests this week in Omaha. A team spokesman also previously had declined an interview request with Ethan Saliba, the team’s athletic trainer.

Brogdon had been performing quite well as Virginia’s sixth man prior to his injury, and he would seem to be an important returning piece to the team next season. And that makes his recovery from this injury all the more relevant to Virginia fans during the offseason.

3) Going out with a dud. Friday’s loss was not easy for anyone associated with the team to swallow. It hurt for Bennett. It hurt for the players. But the sting had to have been particularly painful for fifth-year seniors Mike Scott and Sammy Zeglinski. After leading the Cavaliers back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007, Scott and Zeglinski’s final game as collegiate players was, um, ugly. Very, very ugly.

Still, Scott finished his career ranked No. 3 on the program’s all-time rebounding list and No. 16 on its scoring list. His 34 double-doubles ranks third in program history. He was a first team all-ACC selection and finished second in the conference’s player of the year voting this season. As for Zeglinski, he is one of five Virginia players in program history to have made 200 three-pointers in his career. He also ranks No. 11 on the school’s all-time assists list and No. 10 on the program’s all-time steals list.

Scott said Friday it was too soon to measure his career and season accomplishments against the hurt of suffering a 26-point loss in his final college game. But Bennett didn’t have a problem putting things into perspective.

“I told them it stings right now, but when the sting goes away, I was proud of them and I was grateful for what they gave to the program,” Bennett said. “They’ll remember getting an NCAA tournament berth as something that is going to be special for them and to them. … Hopefully they’ll remember this as an important step for Virginia basketball in years to come.”

By  |  04:58 PM ET, 03/18/2012

 
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