CHARLOTTESVILLE — Darion Atkins looked around Virginia’s practice gym this offseason and began to worry about playing time.
“There’s only five guys that can be on the floor,” he thought.
Atkins saw a front court that already featured senior Akil Mitchell, 7-footer Mike Tobey and three-point shooter Evan Nolte and would be adding 6-foot-8 South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill to the mix in 2013-14 after he sat out last year because of NCAA rules.
The paint was going to be so crowded this season that Virginia’s coaches even approached Atkins last spring — after he had been slowed by a shin injury as a sophomore — wondering if he might be considering a transfer. The one-time third-team All-Met from Landon School hadn’t been, until the thought was put in his head at that moment.
“Do you want me to leave? What’s going on?” Atkins said last week about the situation. “It scared me, [but] I told them I’m here to stay. I’m not gonna take no back seats to anyone, no matter who it is, no matter who you recruit.”
So far, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett hasn’t run into any issues with a front court that has more depth than any team he has ever coached.
In fact, it has become the Cavaliers’ strength as they prepare for another big nonconference test, this one against No. 8 Wisconsin (8-0) on Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The battle for playing time has been fierce and a boon for Bennett.
Mitchell, for instance, is the only post player to start every game. He’s averaging more minutes than any other Virginia big man after earning third-team all-ACC honors last season.
But Gill leads the way in field goal percentage (68.8) and interior scoring (10.4 points per game), despite coming off the bench in four games.
Tobey and Atkins, meanwhile, have morphed into the team’s most efficient rebounders, even though each has received less playing time than Gill and Mitchell. It’s a big reason why Virginia (7-1) currently leads the ACC in rebounding margin and offensive rebounding, both of which were points of emphasis for Bennett this offseason.
The unstable playing time can cause some anxious moments on the bench, but Atkins said sulking doesn’t help.
“That’s something we all have to accept,” he said. Bennett “already told us, he’s gonna go with who’s clicking on that night. . . . If it’s not you, don’t necessarily dwell on it because not everyone has a great game. If you don’t embrace it, it’s only gonna go downhill. It’s only gonna be negativity. I’ve personally embraced it and I think it’s shown.”
Bennett loves the versatility his big men provide. Mitchell and Atkins are better defensively, so he usually breaks that duo up. Tobey and Gill are more developed on the offensive end and present matchup problems.
Gill’s 19 points and seven rebounds paced Virginia in the second half of its 79-76 win over Southern Methodist on Friday in the Corpus Christi (Tex.) Challenge.
But Bennett emphasized this week he’s not married to any combination down low.
“We’ve got eight or nine guys where you could say this is our starting unit. We look at ourselves that way,” he said. “One game it might be this guy stepping up and being the offensive juggernaut for us and the next night it might be someone else. So the different weapons that are there are important, but I still maintain we’re not a team that just makes plays. . . . We have to rely on different guys at different times.”
Last year when Virginia traveled to Madison, Wis., to face the Badgers, Atkins had his star turn. The 6-8 forward scored 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds in a 60-54 victory.
The Clinton native remembers it as the high point of his season before it was derailed by injury, a night in which “I didn’t really feel like a role player.”
But Atkins understands more than ever that it’s not such a bad thing to be a role player on a winning team.
“At the beginning, I didn’t know what was gonna happen, but it’s showing through my actions, that if you play well, then your role develops the right way,” he said. “I’m not getting as many touches as I’d like, but I’m not dwelling on that.”