CHARLOTTESVILLE — There are no assigned seats in the room where the Virginia men’s basketball players are interviewed after games at John Paul Jones Arena. But just to be clear, Mike Scott’s seat is the second one to the right as you enter the door.
“They know better than to sit there,” Scott says of his teammates.
This is but one of the fifth-year senior forward’s unwritten rules. His teammates also understand that the last towel rack in the shower room is reserved for Scott’s garments, and that the spacious handicapped shower stall belongs to him alone. They know the punishment for disobeying Scott’s rules is unpleasant — he once tossed sophomore guard Joe Harris in the team’s cold tub for committing an infraction — and that his mercy is limited.
When the 25th-ranked Cavaliers (21-6, 8-5 ACC) host No. 7 North Carolina (24-4, 11-2) on Saturday, they’ll be within reach of the program’s first NCAA tournament invitation in five years, and Scott’s role in that development has been anything but subtle.
He is responsible for more than one-quarter of Virginia’s point production. During the conference season, no other ACC player has made a higher percentage of his shots. He’s more than earned the clout he holds in the Cavaliers locker room.
But they admire him because, in contrast to previous seasons, Scott has transformed into the vocal leader they needed.
“He’s very confident,” junior guard Jontel Evans said of Scott. “Not cocky, but very confident. His mental approach is what makes him so good.”
When Scott was a boy, he occasionally spent days at Quantico Marine Base, where he watched his father, a staff sergeant, lead by giving orders.
“He always used to yell at me, and then I’d see him yell at grown men,” Scott said. “That was kind of weird.”
Accustomed to following directions without objection, Scott developed a submissiveness that proved difficult to shake even as his basketball skills sharpened.
He loved to emulate the fadeaway jumper he picked up watching NBA stars such as Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett and Carmelo Anthony. But Scott’s coaches in high school and post-graduate school, as well as in his first few years at Virginia, demanded he focus on other aspects of his game. The staff sergeant’s son complied.
Virginia hired Tony Bennett to replace Dave Leitao as its men’s basketball coach following Scott’s sophomore year. By the end of Bennett’s first season with the Cavaliers, six players either had chosen to leave the program or had been dismissed, which left Scott as one of the team’s few remaining veterans.
“My dad always was telling me to be a leader, not a follower,” Scott said. “He kept saying, ‘One of these days you’re going to have to learn how to be a leader because everyone’s looking up at you.’ And I used to always be like, ‘Nah, no one’s watching me.’
“I guess after everyone left and we had really no one after Coach Bennett’s first year, then I was like, ‘All right. I finally got it.’ Ten years later, I finally got it.”
Scott’s efforts to be a leader were interrupted when he injured his left ankle in December 2010, in what would have been his final season at Virginia. The next month, Scott underwent corrective surgery that forced him to sit on the bench the rest of the season.
“I was mad, sometimes a little bit depressed, because you really can’t do much but be a cheerleader,” Scott said. “Anyone put in that position is not going to just be okay with being the best cheerleader.”
He listened as television commentators bemoaned Virginia’s lack of an inside presence. He read article after article about how the Cavaliers’ season went down the drain the day Mike Scott went under the knife.
Last summer, after the NCAA granted him a fifth year of eligibility, one of his primary focuses was perfecting that fadeaway jump shot he’d been asked to table for so many years. Undersized as a power forward, Scott (6 feet 8, 237 pounds) knows he’s more effective facing the basket than with his back to it. He now calls the fadeaway jumper “one of my patented moves.”
Getting hurt, Scott said, was “just something I guess had to happen for me to mature and get a better work ethic.”
At home this summer in Chesapeake, Va., Scott spent many days playing pickup games with friends. Scott said he wanted to let them know that the guy they’d seen take the court in high school had changed.
“He definitely took the passiveness out of his game in the summertime,” said Steven Pledger, who grew up in Chesapeake and now is Oklahoma’s leading scorer. “I told him: ‘In order for you all to win, you literally have to go out every night and get 20 and 10. Even to compete to win.’ He knows that, and he’s doing that.”
Scott still tracks every thought that is publicly offered about his team, and this is what he has heard recently: “I don’t think there’s a player in our league that is more important to one team” than Scott is to the Cavaliers, Boston College Coach Steve Donahue said.
On Jan. 31, Scott made 8 of 11 shots — almost all of which were from 15 feet and beyond — in Virginia’s 65-61 win over Clemson.
“As you saw tonight, the only thing he can’t do is consistently make a half-court shot, and I think that’s about it,” Clemson guard Tanner Smith said.
Scott, who is averaging 17.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, has become a focal point without alienating his teammates. Harris – the guy Scott once dumped in a cold tub – lauded Scott’s tendency this season to console players whom Bennett had been hard on during practice.
“What I’ve seen from him off the court in terms of leadership and really caring and reaching out for his teammates,” Bennett said, “not that it wasn’t that way earlier, but it’s really become a priority to him.”
He also has endeared himself to Virginia’s fans. On Feb. 2, in the comments section of an ESPN.com poll ranking the national player of the year candidates, one Cavaliers fan (screen name “AjosephHoos”) told a joke about Scott and NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.
The trio arrived at heaven’s gates, and God asks Brady and Roethlisberger what they believe in. Upon hearing their answers, God tells each quarterback to sit beside him. Then God asks Scott the same question.
“Well, God,” Scott says in the joke, “I believe you’re in my seat.”