With Mike Scott back, Virginia has interior presence

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The temptation is there for Mike Scott. For the first time in a decade, Virginia is picked to finish in the top third of the conference.

A younger version of him — the one who played for parts of four forgettable years for the Cavaliers — might let the hype consume him. Not now.

“If I was immature, I would have said ‘Yeah, I’m going to make it to the tournament and we’re going to win everything,’ ” Scott said. “But you have to be real about yourself and just worry about the process.”

It’s a lesson forged with plenty of losing and the delay of a full senior season by a year.

The 6-foot-8 forward is back after receiving a hardship waiver. His 2010-11 season ended after 10 games because of an ankle injury. In many ways, so did the Cavaliers’ realistic postseason hopes.

The double-double machine — he has 24 for his career and needs six more to take over third place in Virginia history, behind Ralph Sampson and Travis Watson — opted for surgery when the pain became too much.

It also forced the otherwise diminutive and youthful Cavaliers to reinvent themselves on the fly without their best player.

The results were respectable under the conditions (Virginia’s 7-9 ACC mark was its best since 2007) but rarely was the 16-15 season easy on the eyes.

“We really didn’t have an inside game to speak of,” guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “Assane [Sene] had some pretty good games for us, but as far as having a real post presence, it was tough because every shot we had to work for on the perimeter. You could see our 3-point percentage was pretty good, but our 2-point field goals was low.”

As January, February and March unfolded, Scott chafed. He wanted to be on the floor. He also wanted to help. He embraced his rehabilitation, and it took about six months for him to feel fully healthy.

Along the way, he lost 20 pounds, worked on his long-range shot and dribbling and picked up some pick-and-pop skills from the perimeter. He also was determined to shed a label as an average defender after hearing such criticism over the course of his career.

“I’m a very impatient person,” Scott said. “I was like ‘All right, when is this going to feel better?’ Like a month or two ago, I started to feel like my old self. I feel a lot quicker, and I’m jumping higher.”

That’s welcome news for the Cavaliers, who coach Tony Bennett has reshaped in his two-plus years in Charlottesville.

Only three holdovers — Scott, Sene and Zeglinski — remain from when Bennett took over. With his return, Scott gives Virginia an impressive interior presence with the talent to carry the Cavaliers at least into the top half of the league, if not further.

The notion of Scott as a program savior bothers Bennett, who knows more will be needed if Virginia is to make a run at an NCAA bid.

“I have this sense that everybody thinks that just because Mike’s back, all is well,” Bennett said. “It’s not that easy. He’s going to help us. He’s a very good player, and he’s worked hard, but this is about everybody improving. This is a collective team more than I’ve had in my first two years. I think Mike’s going to do well, but I don’t think it’s fair to say ‘You’re the answer.’ “

There are few decidedly simple solutions, as Scott well knows. His second senior year starts Sunday when the Cavaliers play host to South Carolina State, and he still has yet to savor an NCAA tournament trip.

He understands that won’t happen instantaneously, perhaps showing more patience than he gives himself credit for.

“I tell my teammates when people starting talking about the NCAAs, you definitely want to embrace it,” Scott said. “But just worry about the process of getting there. Just take it day by day. Don’t worry about the tournament in October. Don’t worry about that until March.”

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