Will Sherrill is making the most of his minutes for Virginia basketball

Will Sherrill, above, is averaging 4.5 and 3.8 rebounds in 18.1 minutes per game for the Cavaliers, who open ACC play Saturday.
Will Sherrill, above, is averaging 4.5 and 3.8 rebounds in 18.1 minutes per game for the Cavaliers, who open ACC play Saturday. (Ashley Twiggs/associated Press)
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By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010

Considering Will Sherrill's background, the Virginia junior forward would appear better suited for the White House than an ACC front court. He grew up in New York's Upper East Side, boarded in high school at the renowned Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts and is pursuing double majors in history and economics at U-Va.

He was the sports editor of his high school newspaper, serves as a student-athlete mentor at Virginia and spent his summer interning with a hedge-fund firm. And after two seasons as the player cheering at the end of the Cavaliers' bench, the walk-on has improbably carved a niche within first-year Coach Tony Bennett's rotation.

"Quite frankly, I believe that Will Sherrill can do anything," said Leon Modeste, who coached Sherrill in high school. "I firmly believe Will Sherrill will be president of the country."

Both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush attended Phillips Academy. Asked if the school has ever produced an ACC player, Modeste could not think of one.

"Surprised doesn't begin to describe it. Stunned," said Sherrill's brother, Stephen Sherrill, about the reaction from people who grew up with Sherrill. "People we grew up with don't play ACC basketball."

Sherrill's profile makes him perhaps the unlikeliest of ACC contributors. If Bennett keeps Sherrill in the starting lineup in Saturday's ACC opener for Virginia (8-4) at North Carolina State (11-4, 0-1), it will be Sherrill's sixth consecutive start. The player who totaled seven minutes of mop-up duty in two ACC seasons enters his third ACC season averaging 18.1 minutes, 4.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.

"To say I expected to be out here a lot would not be true," Sherrill said. "But to say I'm surprised by it, well I'm not surprised by it just because I know how much I've worked. I think when people say 'junior walk-on,' they think everything I get is kind of gravy."

Starting guard Sammy Zeglinski, Sherrill's roommate, calls Sherrill the "hardest worker on the team." He acknowledges the reputation walk-ons have, although Sherrill is determined to dispel the connotation of "walk-on."

When Sherrill returned to Virginia's campus following an 18-point, six-rebound performance against Cleveland State on Nov. 25, students provided a backhanded compliment: "Where did that come from?"

"The fact that I'm out there, people don't expect that much from me," Sherrill said. "The coaches don't look at me and say, 'Oh, he's a walk-on, just go out there and hustle.' They expect me to go out there and do anything anyone else can do, whether they have a scholarship or not."

That has not always been the case. Sherrill graduated from Andover without a scholarship offer. His only legitimate opportunity to play came from Division III Amherst College. He wanted to play at Yale, where his father and brother attended, but even the Bulldogs' coaching staff did not promise a spot on the team.

Former Virginia assistant coach Steve Seymour was impressed with Sherrill at one of the Cavaliers' summer camps and offered him a guaranteed spot on the roster, but made no commitment about playing time.

Sherrill understood the situation, though at times last season he wondered what more he needed to do. Virginia struggled to a 10-18 finish and often played uninspired basketball. Former coach Dave Leitao repeatedly called for more passion and effort from his players -- both attributes that Sherrill was told he provided.

"I got put into a role where I was kind of an example for other people to say, 'Look at this guy, he plays really hard,' but it never really materialized into any tangible benefits like playing time," Sherrill said. "I would just be an example for another coach to say, 'Why can't you play as hard as him?' It kind of bothered me. I felt like I would never be able to kind of break out of that mind-set, or that mind frame of where I was in Coach Leitao's mind."

An offseason coaching change brought Bennett, who came from Washington State with little knowledge of the roster. Bennett told his players that everyone was receiving a fresh chance.

"The new coaching staff came in, and he really didn't have any 'scholarship players,' " Zeglinski said. Sherrill "really showed Coach Bennett that he knows how to play in the system and he has the kind of intelligence to play in it. And also the passion."

Besides the coaching change, Sherrill also benefited from his teammates' misfortunes. Center Assane Sene was suspended early in the season, forward Jamil Tucker took a leave of absence before being dismissed from the team last month and forward Mike Scott suffered a high-ankle sprain. Already undermanned in the front court, Bennett had little choice but to play Sherrill, who provided size at 6 feet 9.

Far from a prototype ACC athlete, Sherrill compensated in other ways. He is not adept at creating his own shot, so his field goals are often opportunistic. In a Dec. 30 victory over then-No. 24 Alabama-Birmingham, Sherrill played 24 minutes and did not attempt a shot. He performs tasks unrecognizable in a box score, such as setting screens and continuing possessions by gathering loose balls.

"His value, and I remind him of that in front of the team and privately, is he does the little things well," Bennett said. "I think that's such an important aspect for a team to have. . . . Those glue guys or X-factor guys who are willing to do what it takes. He has to know who he is as a player and who he is for this team to continue to carve out that time. And he has a good attitude, and that's why he's played."

Sherrill remains unimpressed by his unexpected rise. He said playing basketball at Virginia would barely raise eyebrows in conversation among his friends from before his days at Virginia.

"Even though what I'm doing is unique in that no one else I know really is doing something like that, there are a lot of other people who succeed coming out of Andover that what I'm doing really doesn't stand out," Sherrill said, pointing out one friend who is already running a nonprofit organization in South Africa and another who left school early to work on Wall Street.

But playing for the Cavaliers has exposed Sherrill to an environment far from the Upper East Side and Phillips Andover. He points out that his experience -- playing time or no playing time -- provided an opportunity to seamlessly fit within a roster that includes players from five states and two African countries. And that has allowed for growth that might leave Sherrill with a job that could finally impress his former neighbors and classmates.

"I firmly believe he should be president of the United States, because he knows how to communicate with people, and people like Will and Will likes people," Modeste said. "I know he gets at least one vote."

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