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Depleted Cavaliers Move Forward Without Atkins

VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM Darion Atkins
VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM
Darion Atkins
VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM

Jan. 15, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- At Washington State, Tony Bennett's basketball teams suffered their share of injuries, but they generally were limited to bumps and bruises, sprains and strains.

At UVa, Bennett's first team avoided major injuries in 2009-10. Since then, however, the Cavaliers' inability to stay healthy has become one of the major storylines of Bennett's tenure in Charlottesville.

In 2010-11, Mike Scott (ankle), Sammy Zeglinski (knee) and Will Sherrill (leg) each missed at least seven games apiece with injuries, and Scott played in only 10 before his season ended.

In 2011-12, injuries to Assane Sene (ankle), Malcolm Brogdon (foot) and Joe Harris (hand) contributed to the Wahoos' late-season decline and their early exit from the NCAA tournament.

The setbacks, as UVa fans know all too well, have continued this season. Brogdon, who underwent major surgery on his left foot March 7, 2012, is redshirting while working to regain his pre-injury form. Starting point guard Jontel Evans missed nine games in November and December with a foot injury, and 6-8 junior Akil Mitchell, the Cavaliers' leading rebounder, has played the past three games on a severely sprained right ankle.

Mitchell, at least, has remained productive while he's hobbled. Darion Atkins has struggled to do so, and Bennett said Monday that the 6-8 sophomore will be shut down indefinitely.

"We're going to take it a week at a time and see how he progresses," Bennett said after practice at John Paul Jones Arena.

Atkins, who has started 12 of the Cavaliers' 16 games this season, including the past 11, has been bothered for about three weeks by pain in his lower right leg. Tests Monday revealed that he has a stress reaction near his shin, and after a practice in which Atkins did not participate, he huddled with Bennett and head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba to discuss their options.

UVa (11-5, 1-2) does not play again until Saturday, when ACC rival Florida State (10-6, 2-1) visits JPJ for a 4 p.m. game. Then comes a Jan. 24 date with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. It's too early to know if Atkins might be available to face the Hokies.

Atkins' absence will mean more minutes for the team's other frontcourt players, especially freshmen Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte.

After dropping two of its first three games this season, UVa reeled off eight straight victories, with Atkins playing a significant role in that surge. During a six-game stretch that began Nov. 20 against North Texas and ended Dec. 19 against Morgan State, he averaged 11.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots.

But his shin began bothering him as the Dec. 22 game against Old Dominion neared, and he hasn't approached his early-season numbers since then. Atkins scored four points against ODU, none against Wofford, two against North Carolina, two against Wake Forest and, most recently, two against Clemson. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the `Hoos lost three of those games.

With 25 blocked shots, Atkins remains the Cavaliers' leader, and he's still second on the team in rebounds (4.3 per game). But his scoring average has dipped to 6.9, and he hasn't played more than 16 minutes in any of UVa's past four games.

"When you watch it on tape and just seeing him, he's kind of certainly favoring his leg, and he's not the same as he was earlier," Bennett said Monday on the ACC coaches' teleconference.

"I think sometimes you can play if you're not quite 100 percent, but you've got to be close, especially the way Darion plays and has been effective for us. I feel it's unfortunate for him."

The `Hoos hope to get Atkins back to where "he can go and play all out and fly around," Bennett said. "Because that is kind of his mentality, with his versatility and activity on defense, and when he's not able to get out and show on screens as much or be as active, it affects him and probably does affect our defense when he's on the floor, more than most guys."

The injuries that have plagued his teams at UVa are "unfortunate," Bennett said.

"Some of them you just can't control. You always stop and think about how hard these guys work. We've got the best trainer in Ethan, the best strength-and-conditioning coach in Mike [Curtis]. We try to limit how much pounding there is, but you know, sometimes when you go on foreign tours -- now, this has nothing to do with Malcolm -- you work hard in the summer, and you're always gauging that. And some guys are just predisposed to some of these injuries they get. And some are fluke injuries, a broken bone you can't do anything about, or a rolled ankle."

The Cavaliers flew to Europe in August and played five games: two in the Netherlands, one in Belgium and two in France.

The injuries have depleted UVa's depth, Bennett said, but "there's valuable experience being gained out there. The younger guys are getting that time and will grow from it, and we've just got to keep being patient and progressing."

Not all the medical news is bad for the Cavaliers. Brogdon, a 6-5 guard who was UVa's sixth man for the most of the 2011-12 season, took part in several drills with his teammates in practice Monday, and his workload is steadily increasing.

"He's in such a limited role, but it's great to see that he's progressing," Bennett said. "He's just doing a little more all the time. It'd be nice to have Malcolm out there [this season], but that's the hand we've been dealt, and we'll be better for it in the long run."

Brogdon, who can play both guard positions, will have three seasons of eligibility remaining, starting in 2013-14.