There’s a patch of gray hair in the afro cropping up on Virginia fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott’s head. The gray spot has been there since Scott last attended Hargrave Military Academy, but the growth of his hair, he said, is a relatively new development.

Scott, who missed 21 games last season after suffering a left ankle injury in mid-December, said he has not cut his hair since March and will not do so again “until we reach our goal.”

That goal is the same as it is every year: to earn a NCAA tournament bid. As coaches and players convened Thursday for the team’s annual media day, the consensus was that such ambitions are much more attainable entering the 2011-12 season than in either of the past two seasons.

“I think, starting my third year [at Virginia], this is, since I’ve been here, our best chance to take that next step,” Coach Tony Bennett said, referring to earning a spot in the field of 68. “There’s so many variables that come into it.”

For starters, the Cavaliers, who finished 16-15 (7-9 ACC) last season and did not participate in postseason play, will need to stay healthy. Scott was the team’s leading scorer (15.9 ppg) and rebounder (10.2 rpg) last year before his injury. And after earning a medical hardship waiver in the spring, he has returned slimmer, quicker and, he says, ready to help guide the Cavaliers to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007.

While Scott’s offensive production will be needed, the impact his presence will have on the other four Cavaliers on the court may be equally appreciated. No player saw his role impacted more significantly by Scott’s season-ending injury last season than Joe Harris. Then a freshman, Harris, who stands 6 feet 6, suddenly was asked to play the power forward spot in a four-guard lineup.

Harris ended up averaging 10.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game, the third-highest mark on the team in each category. But this season, with Scott back manning the power forward position, Harris will be free to, as he said, “play what Coach recruited me here for,” which is to say he’ll spend more time on the wing and in the backcourt.

Harris was Virginia’s most prolific three-point shooter last year, and while Bennett asked Harris to become a more well-rounded scorer in the offseason, the attention Scott will draw from opposing defenses likely will open up more perimeter looks for Harris and the rest of the Cavaliers’ shooters.

Virginia led the ACC in three-point shooting in conference play (39.6 percent) last season, but ranked No. 11 out of 12 teams in field goal percentage (40.4 percent). That will need to even out a little if the Cavaliers intend to reach their goal.

Having Scott back will help, and Virginia has some frontcourt depth in the form of senior center Assane Sene, sophomore forward Akil Mitchell and redshirt freshman forward James Johnson.

But guards such as fifth-year senior Sammy Zeglinski, junior Jontel Evans and sophomore K.T. Harrell will need to shoot more consistently from mid-range. The trio combined to shoot 36.1 percent from the field in ACC play last season.

Zeglinski, who has dealt with an assortment of injuries during his collegiate career, was healthy for the whole offseason for a change.

Evans — who, like Scott, has pledged not to cut his hair until the Cavaliers earn an NCAA tournament berth — spent the offseason trying to simplify his jump shot.

Harrell lost 10 pounds in an effort to be quicker and more agile on the court. He said he also tried to straighten out a hitch in his jump shot.

“A lot of people are excited about this team, and me and my teammates are excited about this year, too,” Evans said. “But that’s just one of our goals that we set. We want to make it to the NCAA tournament, but nothing’s guaranteed.”

The Cavaliers will be aided by three freshmen — forward Darion Atkins and guards Malcolm Brogdon and Paul Jesperson — but it’s too early to know how significant their respective roles will be during the 2011-12 campaign. Official practices cannot begin, per NCAA guidelines, until Oct. 15.

But Bennett knows he has a veteran squad, and so he expects many of the team’s elder statesmen to share the responsibility of holding the players accountable for individual and team growth.

Scott, the one with the gray patch of hair, is at or near the front of the line in that regard. After expanding to 255 pounds last spring, Scott cut out fast food and his beloved Krispy Kreme donuts to shed 20 pounds in the offseason. He was medically cleared for contact workouts over the summer and said he’s felt back to his old self, playing-wise, for roughly the past six weeks.

“People on the outside looking in are expecting us to go to the [NCAA] tournament,” Scott said. “That’s our goal, to go to the tournament. We’ll only get there by hard work and dedication. A lot of people looking in, it’s easy to say, ‘We’re expecting them to go to the tournament,’ but they don’t know what it is to put in the hard work to do so. It’s easier said than done.”

For all the ways in which Scott’s return is expected to bolster the Cavaliers, Bennett noted that Scott was healthy during Virginia’s early-season trip to play in the Maui Invitational last season, during which the Cavaliers lost to Washington by 43 points.

Bennett is encouraged by the strides his team has taken in the past two years. Virginia led the ACC in scoring defense (62.2 ppg allowed) last season, and a majority of the Cavaliers on this year’s roster are ingrained in Bennett’s unique defensive system. He’s also excited at what Scott’s return will mean to the lineup.

But as good as Bennett thinks this team can be, he’s tempering his optimism until the season gets under way. He doesn’t want the players to shy away from the elevated expectations placed upon them, but he doesn’t want them to be overcome by them, either.

“If we want to reach the goal, if they’re serious about it, they’ll drive themselves harder,” Bennett said. “They’ll got to another level. … There’s going to be those moments where you face failure. You’re going to have some adversity. How do we handle it then?”