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Feb. 7, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – Most basketball teams present a particular set of challenges when opponents prepare for them.
Around the ACC, Virginia has become one of the toughest matchup problems. The Cavaliers play at a controlled pace that leads to low-scoring games and their “pack line” defense can seem impenetrable at times.
And they have one other factor that causes headaches – Mike Scott.
The fifth-year senior is having a stellar season. He leads the ACC with a 58.8 percent shooting mark, is fourth in scoring at 17.0, sixth in rebounding at 8.5 and eighth in free throw percentage at 81.5. This despite facing constant double-teams, which Scott has gotten used to by now.
“They’re respecting me, they’re not trying to play me one-on-one in the post,” Scott said. “I just have to be strong with the ball and make the right decisions.”
Those decisions include not only finding the open man but also setting a good screen that will spring a teammate for a shot or lead to an open shot for himself. He has a mid-range game from 15 to 18 feet that’s especially difficult to defend.
Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik, whose team will try to contain Scott when it plays at Virginia Wednesday night, said the mid-range game has almost become lost in college basketball.
“He’ll post up mid-range, he can shoot over the top of you, he can take bigger guys out(side),” said Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik. “He has great bulk, great size, he’s cagey and he understands even if you try to double him where the open man is. He’s playing at a high level and really gives that team a lot of confidence.”
Scott, who is 6-8 and 237 pounds, said he has always had that mid-range shot because he has been a face-up player most of his basketball career.
“This past summer I worked on it so hard, and I work on it throughout the season,” he said. “You get confidence by repetition and working on your individual game.”
There was some question how effective Scott would be this season. He played 10 games last season before it ended for him because of constant pain from an ankle injury. He had two surgeries that removed bone spurs and cartilage that had torn loose. The NCAA granted his request for a fifth year of eligibility.
“It really took me almost seven or eight months to get back in game-shape form,” Scott said. “I had some setbacks. My ankle really wasn’t acting like I wanted it to, getting sore at points, so I was held back some. Knock on wood, it’s feeling pretty good (right now). I’m able to move faster and dribble a little higher, so it’s definitely feeling great.”
Virginia coach Tony Bennett said Scott was in and out of preseason practice and missed two scrimmages because his ankle flared up. Near the start of the season, the coaching staff wasn’t sure where things stood. But once the season started, Scott’s ankle settled down.
“He’s really good about getting his treatments, getting his rehab, doing the right kinds of things that have made a difference,” Bennett said, “and hopefully that continues for him.”
The Cavs have been a surprise to many observers this season, posting an 18-4 record that has led to a No. 19 national ranking. They are 5-3 in the ACC. And while all of Virginia’s parts have to move together, there’s no doubt which one drives the engine.
“I don’t think there’s a player in our league who is more important to one team than he is,” Boston College coach Steve Donahue said of Scott. “For their offense, the percentage of baskets that he receives over the points they score is a huge part of what they do.”
Florida State got the better of the Cavs in Tallahassee last weekend, but just barely, 58-55. The Seminoles survived Scott’s 16 points and 11 rebounds.
“There’s no doubt that Scott is a guy who’s very capable of beating you unless you give him an unbelievable amount of attention,” said Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton. “He’s a handful, there’s no doubt about that.”
Scott seemed destined to play basketball at a young age. When he would go to kindergarten class, he would often take his hat or his gloves and throw them in the trash can like he was shooting.
“I would come home with a missing glove or a missing hat,” Scott said. “My dad asked me if I was giving them away and I told him what I was doing, so he got me a basketball and that was how I started.”
Growing up in Chesapeake, Va., Scott realized he might be pretty good when he scored, as he remembers it, 27 points in his first high school game. When AAU coaches began contacting him, that’s when he knew it was time to get serious about the game. He became highly recruited and chose Virginia over NC State, Oklahoma and Temple.
Under coach Dave Leitao, Scott averaged 5.7 points and 5.3 rebounds as a freshman and pushed those marks to 10.3 points and 7.4 rebounds as a sophomore. After Bennett came in, Scott continued to play well, averaging 12 points and 7.2 rebounds. He was scoring 15.9 points and grabbing 10.2 rebounds before last season was cut short.
The biggest adjustment to Bennett’s style was the defense. Scott said it took him about a year-and-a-half to grasp the principles. He plays a key role, especially since Assane Sene, the team’s best help defender, has been out with an injury.
“The pack defense is a team defense,” Scott explained. “There is no ‘my man’ mentality in the pack defense. What I’m doing is hedging on ball screens, helping on screens, fighting in the post and not letting an easy post entry (pass), then finishing it off with a rebound.”
Having to watch the last two-thirds of last season from the bench was, Scott said, a humbling experience. But he tried to absorb as much as he could.
“Being able to take my time and be poised on the court, I think that’s what I saw last year when I sat out,” he said. “I think we needed somebody who was calm in there and I’ve been able to do that so far.
“I’m still improving in being a leader but for the most part me, Sammy (Zeglinski) and Assane (Sene) and Jontel (Evans) have taken that leadership role. There’s much more on our shoulders now, especially on the road. That’s where we need me the most to be the leader.”
He continues to work on that by the classes he takes. Having graduated with a degree in anthropology, Scott is taking graduate courses in leadership skills.
Bennett said Scott has become a more team-oriented defensive player and a more versatile offensive player who has stretched his range and is able to get his lean-back jumper off the dribble more often.
“The thing I like about Mike,” Bennet said, “is he will be the first to say ‘I need to improve in this area’ or ‘I didn’t do well in this situation.’ He’s still seeking ways to help this team and improve. He’s not one of those guys where it’s just about showcasing him or trying to get numbers. He really wants the team to do well and that’s really refreshing to see.”
So what do the Cavaliers need to do to continue their success into March?
“Take care of the ball on offense and continue to play our pack defense,” Scott said. “We have a lot of games to play and a lot of improvements to make and we’re just trying to get better.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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