By Doug Doughty
CHARLOTTESVILLE - It has been a rare offseason of late in which the Virginia men's basketball program hasn't had to deal with some sort of drama, be it a coaching change, an injury, an underclassmen turning pro or players transferring.
This year, for the first time in recent memory, Virginia returns to the table with the chess pieces in the same place they were in the spring.
The Mike Scott piece - you might want to call him the king - was in need of repair but he looks as good as new, complete with a rebuilt ankle and a 20-pound weight loss.
In its first two seasons with Tony Bennett as head coach, Virginia finished 15-16 in 2009-2010 and 16-15 last year. To hear Bennett speak Thursday at the Cavaliers' basketball media day, a .500 finish is not in the plans for Year 3.
"Our goal every year is to make the NCAA tournament and get into postseason play," said Bennett, whose Washington State teams made the NCAA field in each of his first two seasons. "This is, since I've been here, our best chance to take that next step.
"I don't think you want to get too hung up on the early season projections, but I want our guys - I don't know if embrace is the right word -not to shy away from those."
Of the top seven scorers on last year's team, only guard Mustapha Farrakhan (13.4 points per game) does not return. Farrakhan had a team-high 418 points, but, in terms of average, Scott was the Cavaliers' leading scorer (15.9) and rebounder (10.2)
Scott played in 10 games before undergoing a season-ending ankle injury and met the criteria for a successful hardship appeal and a fifth season of college eligibility.
"I don't think I've ever been this hungry," said Scott, a 6-foot-8, 237-pound forward, who wasn't referring to his appetite for food. "It's kind of sad that it took me getting hurt to get this hungry."
Scott, who is in his sixth season out of Deep Creek High School in Chesapeake, turned 23 this summer. At that, he is one month younger than fellow fifth-year senior Sammy Zeglinski.
Zeglinski actually committed to Virginia in the fall of 2005, when he was a junior at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia.
Of the five Virginia teams for which he has played, this one "definitely has the most talent," Zeglinski said. "It has the most offensive weapons."
Zeglinski missed the first seven games of the 2010-11 season following knee surgery and also has had operations on a hip and an ankle. He qualified for a fifth year when his rookie season, 2007-2008, ended after nine games.
Bennett has been having one-on-one meetings with his players and Zeglinski was in his office Thursday.
"I asked, 'How are you feeling?'" Bennett said. "He said, 'Coach, this is the healthiest I've been as far as having a summer - really, a spring, a summer and now fall - where I've haven't had either a surgery or an injury that's held me back.'"
In the next-to-last game of the season, Zeglinski was 6-of-7 on 3-pointers and finished with a career-high 25 points in UVa's 74-60 upset at Maryland. Five days later, he was part of an epic UVa collapse in a 69-62 overtime loss to Miami in the ACC Tournament.
The Cavaliers squandered a 10-point lead in the final minute of regulation as Zeglinski went 0-for-3 from the free-throw line. He was one of three Cavaliers who played more than 600 minutes and shot under 60 percent from the free-throw line - Jontel Evans (59.6), Zeglinski (57.1) and Assane Sene (55.7).
"That's a hard one for us, when I look at that statistic," Bennett said. "That hurts because it's hard to be successful. I think we've shot more and I've got to keep trying to be creative. I'm always checking with other coaches [and asking], 'What do you do?'"
As opposed to the 2009-2010 season, when Virginia lost 10 of its last 11 games, the Cavaliers went 4-2 over the last three weeks of the 2010-2011 season, although the finale against Miami was a crushing blow.
"We use that with our guys," Bennett said. "That's got to be fuel for you in the offseason. Whenever you're tired or don't feel like working that much harder or shooting extra free throws, just replay that in your mind.
"If that doesn't motivate you â€ then you're in the wrong program or wrong sport or wrong place."