Virginia basketball turns to Mustapha Farrakhan for leadership

CHARLOTTESVILLE VA -JANUARY 27: Virginia Cavaliers guard Mustapha Farrakhan (2), left, defends agaisnt Maryland Terrapins guard Adrian Bowie (1) , right, driving the ball as the University of Maryland defeats the University of Virginia 66 - 42 in mens NCAA basketball in Charlottesville VA , photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
CHARLOTTESVILLE VA -JANUARY 27: Virginia Cavaliers guard Mustapha Farrakhan (2), left, defends agaisnt Maryland Terrapins guard Adrian Bowie (1) , right, driving the ball as the University of Maryland defeats the University of Virginia 66 - 42 in mens NCAA basketball in Charlottesville VA , photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post) (John Mcdonnell)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011

CHARLOTTESVILLE - Standing just off the court Monday, Virginia senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan leaned over and watched his teammates carry out a practice drill designed to limit dribble penetration into the post.

"Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze!" Farrakhan shouted as he clapped his hands. The Cavaliers host Clemson on Wednesday, and Farrakhan knew they had little time to shore up what has been a significant, nagging flaw.

Playing basketball comes naturally to Farrakhan, but his role on the Cavaliers no longer is that simple. As the lone completely healthy senior at Virginia Coach Tony Bennett's disposal, Farrakhan has come to realize that he must set aside his own relative inexperience and reserved inclinations to focus on trying to be the type of leader his team needs, rather than the type with which he is comfortable.

"Starting [Monday], I mean, we don't want to keep talking about the same issues that's been happening, so we really want to make an emphasis on just mending that," said Farrakhan, who noted he's not naturally a vocal leader. "We moved the ball [Saturday against Wake Forest], got good looks, it was just a matter of stopping them. We have to do that to stay in games."

On Saturday, for the sixth time in seven ACC games this season, Virginia (11-10, 2-5 ACC) held a lead in the second half. For the fifth time in seven conference contests, the Cavaliers lost, this time by a 76-71 score to a Wake Forest squad that previously had not claimed an ACC victory.

Afterward, Bennett and his players spoke about late defensive breakdowns, and the issue of accountability arose. Freshman guard K.T. Harrell said "it's all about a mind-set" and that the team can't continue to "slack off" during a game's closing minutes.

Virginia's regular eight-man rotation includes four players with less than two full seasons of collegiate experience, two players who never had averaged more than 20 minutes per game in ACC play before this season and two experienced players whose minutes have been limited because of injuries suffered in the past four months.

Who, exactly, from that bunch is supposed to hold the others accountable? The broad answer: all of the above. The narrow answer: Farrakhan.

"It's nothing I can't really handle," said Farrakhan, the team's leading scorer (12.8 points per game). "I try to say as much as I can, but everybody got to look at themselves in the mirror, too. So it's a bit of leadership and take your own self into account, be able to do your job."

In his first three seasons combined with the Cavaliers, Farrakhan started one ACC game and averaged 14.3 minutes per contest in conference play. This season, he has started all seven ACC games and is averaging 33.9 minutes per league contest. No active Virginia player is logging more court time than Farrakhan, and the expectations of him have risen accordingly.

"Everybody is different, personality-wise," Bennett said. "Some are more led by example, and some are not leaders. They're just quiet or it's not in their nature. Some are just trying to keep their head above water to survive, which you can see. So, you know, I think leadership, being able to communicate, is something that needs to keep improving for this team with the wide gap, or with the amount of first-years, hard to ask one of them to step up and lead, though they certainly can.

"But that needs to keep coming. And probably our one natural leader would be [senior forward Will] Sherrill, and when he's not on the floor, you need leaders on the floor."

Farrakhan's was the first name Bennett mentioned.

Sherrill's minutes have been scaled back - he is averaging 13.7 per game and logged seven at Wake Forest - as he continues to recover from a fractured fibula he suffered in his right leg in late November. Virginia's only other senior - forward Mike Scott - is out for the season (ankle). Junior guard Sammy Zeglinski underwent knee surgery in mid-October and is averaging 20 minutes per ACC contest.

In league play, the Cavaliers are allowing nearly 10 more points per game on average in the second half (38.3) than they are in the first (28.6). No one player is responsible for that statistic, but Farrakhan knows part of his role now includes fostering the collective maturity that will help Virginia sustain its level of play until the final horn sounds.

"You've just got to be able to say it without saying it negatively," Farrakhan said. "Just being able to say it to inspire your teammates and make them work harder. That's all you've got to do. And just stay on everybody.

"Even if it's a young guy talking to a veteran to tell him what he needs to do, everybody has to be held accountable to a certain standard if you want to be able to beat teams and lock in defensively."


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