And shortly after that, Bennett called freshman guard Paul Jesperson, who had returned to his native Merrill, Wis., for Christmas. At the season’s outset, the plan was to have Jesperson redshirt this season, but Harrell’s departure created a shortage of options for the five-man guard rotation Bennett prefers to employ. Jesperson said Bennett broached the possibility of the 6-foot-6 guard lifting his redshirt and playing immediately.
Jesperson spent the next few days mulling over the idea and consulting with his family and former coaches. Even as he flew back to Charlottesville on Sunday, Jesperson said, he was unsure of what answer he would give Bennett when he showed up to practice that evening.
“I was uncertain because I really thought that that redshirt year would really help me,” Jesperson said. “But then I thought getting that experience this year is going to help me for next year if I play.”
With roughly two-thirds of the season remaining, Jesperson saw an opportunity to develop his game in the best way possible – through live, in-game competition. He said he’d grown comfortable with his decision to redshirt this year and focus on enhancing his athleticism and strength. But the potential short-term advantage to both himself and the team of him playing right away proved too enticing to pass up.
And so on Tuesday night, with 9 minutes 19 seconds remaining in the first half against Maryland-Eastern Shore, Jesperson made his collegiate debut. He finished the night with five points on 2-of-6 shooting in 15 minutes. He was neither outstanding nor disappointing. And how his role develops as the season progresses will be interesting to watch.
For now, Jesperson is the ninth man in an eight-man rotation. Bennett said he will try to get Jesperson as much playing time as possible in the team’s final two remaining nonconference games, against Towson on Friday and at LSU on Monday. But Bennett also made clear he is comfortable utilizing an eight-man – or even a seven-man – rotation, and that may prove to be the case once ACC play begins a week from Saturday against Miami.
Jesperson and Harrell possess different styles and skill sets as players, and Bennett will attempt to use Jesperson differently than he would have Harrell.
“KT is more of an aggressive scorer; he’d look to come in and attack a little more,” Bennett said. “With Paul, he’s a little more of a feel guy. Probably his passing is his strength right now. He sees the floor a little better and is more patient.”
Harrell had experience in Bennett’s system and, at this point, was more adept than Jesperson at defending the way Bennett wants his players to defend. Harrell also is more of a physical player than Jesperson.
“Those are things that we’ll miss, but he’s not here, and we move on,” Bennett said. “And I think we get some nice things hopefully from Paul and the other guys. When guys leave, you say, ‘All right, let’s figure out how we can be a little different and hopefully better.’ ”
For all intents and purposes, Bennett wanted Jesperson to lift his redshirt to ensure depth in the event of injury or foul trouble. But that’s not to say Jesperson is without skills that could help the team right now.
Jesperson is known for his long-range shooting ability, and that may come and go in spurts as he adjusts to the pace of the college game. But what impressed Bennett the most during Jesperson’s collegiate debut was the player’s ability to pass up shots, play within the rhythm of the offense and know when, where and how to feed his teammates the ball, even while the crowd was urging him to shoot.
“Anybody who has some smarts and feel can usually figure out a way to help you, and that’s my hope for him,” Bennett said.
The key to Jesperson earning more playing time – specifically when conference play begins – is his ability to facilitate the offense, to deliver the ball safely into the post and to take quality shots when they present themselves.
“I was a little nervous to start the game,” Jesperson said Tuesday night following Virginia’s 69-42 win over UMES. “I wasn’t super comfortable in there because I’d never been in front of that many people and played. But as we got going a little bit into the second half, I feel like I got a little more comfortable.”
Bennett and Jesperson’s teammates can only hope that trend continues as Jesperson gains more experience in the coming months.