One of the areas the Virginia men’s basketball team will look to address this week as it prepares to face Florida in the second round of the NCAA tournament Friday is the deficient bench production they’ve received from their two remaining scholarship reserves in recent weeks.
To be fair, when this season began, neither freshman forward Darion Atkins nor freshman guard Paul Jesperson were expected to have roles nearly as significant as those they currently possess. Jesperson, in fact, wasn’t supposed to play this season at all.
But that doesn’t change the fact that if Virginia is to have a chance at defeating Florida — much less at making an extended run in the NCAA tournament — the Cavaliers simply will need more from both players.
In the three games since freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon, the team’s top reserve most of the season, was sidelined because of a season-ending foot injury, Atkins and Jesperson have combined to tally two points and seven rebounds. During Friday’s 67-64 loss to North Carolina State in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, the duo did not record a point or rebound in 13 combined minutes.
“Malcolm gave us some ball-handling and some defensive abilities,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said Monday. “Without him, we haven’t had much contributions from the bench scoring-wise. Darion and Paul are going to be called upon. They’re going to get opportunities. With a seven-man rotation, if it’s Paul sticking a jump shot or getting good looks, or Darion getting some finishes or making some good defensive plays, that’s important.
“The thing is, I think for those young guys, we’ve got to convince them that they have to go out there and not be afraid to make a mistake. … They have to go out there, and play with the freedom of trying to help the team, not do anything crazy, but they’re going to be important, and we need everybody to give us something.”
At this point in the season, though, when mistakes are magnified and losses carry steeper consequences, it’s challenging for both parties to live up to that message. Take Atkins, for example. He picked up two fouls in a 40-second span early in the first half Friday against N.C. State, was immediately removed and did not return the rest of the game.
Given Virginia’s roster limitations (the Cavaliers have seven available scholarship players), Atkins’s foul trouble was especially costly. The team needs him to provide some semblance of interior depth. But most coaches sit players once they’ve accumulated two first half fouls; that much wasn’t a surprise.
What was interesting was that Bennett did not find a way to get Atkins back in the game in the second half, even if only for a few minutes. How does that mesh with telling a player not to be afraid to make a mistake? At the same time, if you’re Bennett, how else do you get the message across that the Cavaliers can’t afford for Atkins to be so foul prone? It’s a tricky line to walk.
“Sometimes he’s hard-headed,” fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott said of Atkins. “He’ll come along. Most freshmen hit that freshmen wall. He’s just learning. He’s actually lucky. He made the tournament his first year. It took me five, so he should have nothing to worry about.”
As for Jesperson, Bennett and players said they’d like for the freshman guard to be more consistently aggressive. Jesperson has averaged 1.4 points and 0.8 rebounds in 10.1 minutes per game since his redshirt was lifted in late December.
“I always talk especially to Paul, because he has that feel offensively,” Scott said. “He has that feel for the game and he’s poised, and he lets the game come to him. He doesn’t force anything, but you just tell him, ‘If you’re scared you’re going to come out, it’s not going to happen. You’re going to play. So if you’re going to make a mistake, be aggressive. Just don’t play on your heels.’”
The inexperience of Jesperson and Atkins likely factors into their occasional timidity. By comparison, Florida’s top two reserves are redshirt junior guard Mike Rosario and sophomore guard Scottie Wilbekin. On the season, they’re each averaging just shy of 15 minutes per game.
In the five contests since the Gators lost sophomore reserve forward Will Yeguete, who had averaged 21.9 minutes per game, to a season-ending foot injury, Rosario and Wilbekin have combined to average six points and two rebounds in 32.2 minutes per game. That’s not game-altering production, but it’s something. When all five members of a starting lineup average double digits in scoring — as is the case with Florida — something often can be enough.
Entering the NCAA tournament, the Cavaliers are hoping for a little more production out of Atkins and Jesperson. Bennett may well try to continue to play his starters 34-40 minutes per game the rest of the season, but at some point, he’ll have to put Atkins and Jesperson in the game. Fair or not, their reliability will be a factor this postseason.
“I think Paul probably could be a little bit more assertive at times,” fifth-year senior Sammy Zeglinski said Monday. “That’s something that we’ll continue to emphasize this week at practice. We just want to make sure Darion is active on both ends of the floor and really going into the offensive glass and defensively just sprinting down the court and making sure nobody’s getting deep post touches and really boxing out and getting rebounds for us.”