Bringing together a college basketball team is a bit like putting together a puzzle. UVA men’s coach Tony Bennett, women’s coach Debbie Ryan (Educ ’77) and their staffs are constantly in the process of pulling that puzzle together, piece by piece. While each program faces different circumstances this year, both are turning to young, talented players to carry a big portion of the load.
Bennett has brought in a large recruiting class of six first-years who represent both the present and future of the program. They join a lone second-year and five upperclassmen to form a collection of versatile, hard-nosed and aggressive players well suited to Bennett’s formula for a successful program.
The foundation of six scholarship first-years—guards KT Harrell, Billy Baron and Joe Harris, and forwards Will Regan, James Johnson and Akil Mitchell—and second-year Jontel Evans will play a huge role in Bennett’s current overhaul of the program.
“You want guys that are gym rats, and just by numbers they’ll have to contribute,” Bennett says. “They want to do everything they can to be ready.”
By all reports, that’s exactly what’s happening. Bennett’s focus on players with a competitive fire and the understanding that immediate playing time is at stake have created an interesting early dynamic among the players during informal pickup games.
“There have been a lot of sleepless nights with this group because we all want to win,” says Baron, the recruiting class’ true point guard. “No one wants to lose.”
If you watch YouTube highlights of KT Harrell—one of the most highly regarded recruits in Bennett’s first full class—during his time in high school, you’ll see a dazzling array of shots, moves and firepower from the Alabama native, who averaged 27.8 points per game as a senior. But ask him about his game and all he wants to talk about is defense.
“Scoring is a big part of my game, but defense is more important,” Harrell says. “This summer I’ve been really trying to improve my defensive skills.”
That comes as little surprise, because if he is going to get on the court as a first-year—no matter how many points he can score—he’s going to have to defend. Bennett has exacting standards on that end of the floor because his system relies on well-played, team-oriented defense.
Jontel Evans exemplifies the defensive tenacity Bennett demands and earned significant playing time last season as a result. He plays defense with the physicality of a cornerback who’s been unleashed on the hardwood, which makes sense considering he was a highly recruited football player from Bethel High in Hampton. He’ll join Mustapha Farrakhan and Sammy Zeglinski in an experienced backcourt. Evans has already had a big impact on Baron during their regular battles in offseason workouts and practice.
“When Billy closes his eyes at night, he probably sees Jontel,” Bennett says. “To daily go against a guy like Jontel with his physical strength and quickness—I think Jontel pushes guys in that regard.”
With Evans and several of the upperclassmen, including frontline players Mike Scott and Assane Sene, setting the defensive tone and giving the first-years an idea of the level of competition in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the men’s team will rely on its veteran leaders to guide the first-year players in the right direction.
The focal point for Ryan’s women’s squad is a little different. The program is far from an overhaul like the men’s, but do-it-all guard Monica Wright (Col ’10), who averaged 23.3 points per game and was the second pick in the WNBA draft, is gone from the lineup. The Cavaliers still have plenty of firepower, but the look will be different. A big class of second-year players and a few key first-year additions will step to the forefront in an effort to replace Wright.
“It makes us make more of a conscious effort to really move the ball and find the open player,” says second-year forward Simone Egwu, “because we don’t have that crutch anymore.”
Egwu, an athletic 6-foot-3 game-changer, will play a significant role in that shift. She and Telia McCall make up the young base in the post. The tandem averaged more than four rebounds each per game last season, and they’ll be expected to increase their scoring this season. Add China Crosby, Lexie Gerson and Erinn Thompson to that mix and the Cavaliers boast a talented second-year group ready to make a huge leap.
The trio of first-years, Kelsey Wolfe, Jazmin Pitts and Ataira Franklin, will continue an infusion of versatility and athleticism into the program. Franklin should be especially effective on defense while Wolfe gives the Cavaliers another big-time shooter. Pitts also has high-end potential—she poured in 15 points and nine rebounds per game in high school. Virginia’s depth and athletic height should allow for the same up-tempo offense fans have come to expect.
“I think that’s the style Coach [Ryan] wants to go for—really upbeat,” Franklin says. “We don’t have to play in the half-court set; we can push the ball, be intense on defense and get steals and layups.”
It’s all about finding the right pieces to get that done, and that’s Ryan’s and Bennett’s job in a nutshell.
“It takes patience and time [to bring along young players] but when that maturity comes, it’s worth the growing pains,” Bennett says. “As a group, they can do it.”