Minnette Atkins knew well before her son, Virginia forward Darion Atkins, would pick up the phone to vent that he wasn’t having fun last year.

She would look across the court at John Paul Jones Arena and study his facial expressions. She noticed when Atkins would linger outside the huddle or sulk at the end of the bench, disappointed after being yanked from a game. She kept telling Darion to be patient, that “it’s just not your season.”

But at one point last winter, Minnette Atkins felt compelled to call Coach Tony Bennett with a simple request: “I just want Darion to go back to being happy.”

Darion Atkins called the entire experience “one big headache.” But in retrospect, now that Bennett considers him the “defensive anchor” for No. 6 Virginia (9-0) this season, he’s glad he took his mother’s advice.

Atkins is expected to return from an injury to his ribs and lower back, suffered in a fall during Virginia’s win at Maryland on Dec. 3, when the Cavaliers take on Cleveland State on Thursday night after a 12-day exam break. But his continued presence on the roster is also a testament to perseverance in an era when transfers have reached record levels and instant gratification is the norm in college basketball.

“If I handled it completely the wrong way, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today,” Atkins said this week. “I’m just not the type of guy to run from adversity. I just stuck it out [to] be that guy that the coaches could rely on to be loyal.”

Atkins learned loyalty growing up as a fraternal twin in Clinton. Minnette Atkins said Darion and Darius had to go to different schools beginning in the fifth grade. Darius would daydream in class and developed a love for dance. Darion seemed to be fighting constantly, defending Darius against the taunts of classmates.

Darion ended up starring on the basketball court at Landon. Darius moved on to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and is studying at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York.

“They’re different almost as night and day,” said Minnette Atkins, who works as a legal assistant in downtown Washington. “But they both fly high because Darius can leap just as high or higher than Darion when he’s dancing.”

That athleticism should pay dividends this winter for Bennett, who is relying on Atkins’s shot-blocking ability to offset the void left by former Virginia defensive stalwart Akil Mitchell.

In the first eight games this season, Atkins filled up the stat sheet and assumed a spot in the starting lineup, prior to his injury. The lone senior on this year’s roster, he is averaging 6.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals entering Thursday.

Atkins seemed to be on the verge of such productivity two years ago, but a shin injury derailed his sophomore season. Last year, he averaged just 5.4 minutes per appearance during Virginia’s final eight games, including the program’s run through the ACC and NCAA tournaments.

Bennett knew all along Atkins’s frustration was simply because “he’s always wanted to play, and it’s sometimes hard for guys when the time isn’t there.” Bennett noted this week that focusing on defense and rebounding would likely present Atkins the best chance to play professionally in the future.

But embracing a role in which few offensive plays are called for him remains a challenge for Atkins, who sometimes must fight the urge to “force it a little bit offensively because so many guys want to get certain shots this year and they want to get certain guys going.”

“I guess they just didn’t see that being my role here, so I just do whatever I can to stay on the court,” Atkins added. “It wasn’t really hard to, I guess, swallow my ego, but I just see it as if my team wins, we’ll all be taken care of. . . . I just want to be remembered as the guy who capitalized on his opportunities and played really good defense, tried to rebound really well and was a humble guy and was really patient and waited his turn to try to help his team win as many games as he could.”

Count Minnette Atkins among those glad to hear such words coming from her son’s mouth again.

“He’s doing what he loves to do, and to see him as happy as he is, to see him smile and just be back to his little joking self,” she said, “it is truly a blessing for me.”