Fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott is the primary conduit through which the Virginia men’s basketball program has become relevant again on the national scene. He has accounted for 27.4 percent of the Cavaliers’ point production this season, and, consequently, he regularly draws two or three opposing defenders whenever he touches the ball.
Offensively, Virginia does not rely on any other player more than it does Scott. He is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, and the Cavaliers’ chances for victory decrease significantly on the nights when Scott is either ineffective or constrained by foul trouble. If Virginia is to contend – much less defeat – No. 7 North Carolina on Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena, the Cavaliers will need Scott to further validate his candidacy for ACC player of the year.
“I like situations like that, where everyone’s counting on me, everyone’s watching me, where the attention’s on me,” Scott said.
But sometimes, the weight of his on-court responsibilities can take an exhausting toll. The morning after Virginia’s 70-38 win Jan. 19 at Georgia Tech, Scott sent a text message to his mother that read: “I’m tired as hell.” Her response: “Well honey, the NBA is harder.”
That destination is the long-term goal. But for now, Scott’s focus is on leading the Cavaliers to an NCAA tournament berth for the first time in five years. He has demonstrated deftness in many skills this season, but his offensive effectiveness has been defined in large part by a fadeaway jumper that has nearly limitless range and that Scott calls “one of my patented moves.”
Scott has toyed with that shot for years, but previous coaches demanded he focus on other aspects of his game. It wasn’t until Coach Tony Bennett took over the program following Scott’s sophomore season that the player felt encouraged to expand his offensive repertoire, and it wasn’t until he was recovering from season-ending ankle surgery last spring and summer that he was motivated enough to perfect the move.
It bothered Scott that it seemed like everyone counted out Virginia as soon as his injury sidelined him the final three months of last season. It especially bothered him having to watch the Cavaliers blow a 10-point lead in the final 42 seconds of a first round ACC tournament loss to Miami last March. He knew he could have helped, and so he deepened his commitment this past offseason to improving his game and his ability to lead.
This season, sophomore forward Akil Mitchell said, Scott “is a lot more vocal, a lot more uplifting. Last year he was kind of to himself a little bit more. With as many freshmen as we had, we didn’t really interact as much as we do this year. I’m really proud of his leadership. I think he’s stepped up a lot.”
And on the court, junior guard Jontel Evans noted: “Every spot on the floor is a good spot for him. Three, two, 15 feet, in the paint – anywhere on the court he can score. Last year, he was kind of passive as far as trying to get other guys involved, but now this year he knows that we have to play inside-out. We have to play through him first. He’s the first option, so he has to be aggressive.”
And he’s been just that. On the road, Scott said, he likes to take his first shot relatively quickly after he receives the pass. He calls it a “heat check.” During Virginia’s 61-59 win Tuesday at Virginia Tech, Scott fired his first shot attempt – a long jump shot – 12 seconds after the opening tip. He finished with a game-high 20 points on 9 of 16 shooting.
Scott leads the ACC in field goal percentage in conference play, but unlike many of the post players who populate that list, many of Scott’s attempts come from 15 feet or beyond. The Cavaliers recently have begun setting a variety of screens for him to create space so that he can take more unencumbered mid-range jumpers. Scott also is plenty capable of creating space on his own.
“I’m undersized as a power forward, so with my back toward the basket against bigger defenders probably – it may work sometimes, I can get ‘em with an up-and-under or a pump fake,” Scott said. “But when you face up, you can see the whole floor.
“And especially when I’m getting double-teamed, they’re just sending their bigs at me. I just face up and I’m looking around. No double team? Okay. You just about to get cooked real quick. That’s basically how I see it.”
During Virginia’s 65-61 win Jan. 31 over Clemson earlier this season, Scott made 8 of 11 shots, and again, most of which were taken from 15 feet and beyond. That night, Scott primarily was defended by Clemson center Catalin Baciu, who is listed as 7 feet 2 and 255 pounds. Scott, mind you, is 6-foot-8 and 237 pounds.
“His face was hilarious,” Scott said of Baciu. “Every time I would make it, he would look to his bench with his arms raised, like, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And I was like: ‘Yep. I don’t know either. I’m just going to make these buckets, though.’
“I can’t body him because he was stronger than me. I could try to shoot over him, but he was 7-2. Only thing I could do was move him around. I was more mobile than him, quicker than him. Go around him, go past him, create space and get my shot.”
Scott made 6 of 8 shots and tallied 16 points during Virginia’s 58-55 loss Feb. 4 at Florida State, and he left quite an impression on Seminoles Coach Leonard Hamilton.
“I think he’s a youngster that’s virtually unstoppable,” Hamilton said. “If you give him the ball in certain areas, he’s not going to miss.”
The Cavaliers will need something close to that degree of accuracy from Scott on Saturday against North Carolina. The last time Virginia faced the Tar Heels – a 70-52 road loss Feb. 11 – Scott got into early foul trouble and ended up playing just 27 minutes. Still, he managed to score 18 points on 9 of 17 shooting.
North Carolina boasts nearly an entire starting lineup full of ACC player of the year candidates – Kendall Marshall, Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes and John Henson – but if Virginia’s (Scott) can stay out of foul trouble and come through with another solid performance, the Cavaliers could find themselves in position in the closing minutes to pull off an upset victory.
For all the attention Scott has been showered with this season, teammates say he has remained remarkably humble throughout.
“Other guys, if they had that role, they’d probably be cocky with it,” Evans said. “But he’s confident. He’s unselfish with it.”
Scott said his humility was bred by his father, who formerly served as a staff sergeant in the Marines. He said he tries to play down all the hype that has surrounded him in recent months as much as possible, but that doesn’t prevent him from reading and listening to everything that is written and said about him and his team.
“I know I’m not just going to run with it and say I’m ACC player of the year or I’m national player of the year,” Scott said. “I still have tons of work and improvement to do. But I also know that maybe people are starting to see all the hard work I put in and am still putting in.”