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College Basketball

After years of work, Mike Scott ready to take Virginia to next level

A few minutes before 1 p.m. last Sunday, Virginia's team bus pulled out of a Marriott parking lot in Greenbelt, Md.

Fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott sat in his usual spot, about three-quarters back on the right side, and put in his headphones. With arguably the biggest game of his career looming in just over an hour, he needed to focus on the task at hand.

Never one willing to leave anything to chance, Scott approaches every game, every new challenge with steely determination.

Recently named first-team All-ACC and runner-up for conference Player of the Year, Scott has quietly developed into one of the most versatile players in the nation. He's averaging 17.9 points and 8.3 rebounds for the Cavaliers (22-8, 9-7), who take on N.C. State in the ACC tournament quarterfinals Friday afternoon.

At that moment on a bus in Maryland, though, individual accolades meant little. He's had one goal since arriving in Charlottesville and that was to take his team to the NCAA tournament.

*****

In between naps and learning his 1, 2, 3s, Mike Scott fell in love with basketball.

Everything the 4-year-old saw at Minnieland Preschool transformed into a hoop. A box sitting on the counter? Perfect for a mid-range jumper. A trash can by the door? Time for a one-handed dunk.

Scott used pieces of clothing as a ball, leaving his father, a former Marine sergeant, confused.

"I noticed that every time he would come home, he would be missing one of his gloves or his skullcap," Michael Scott said. "We went back and forth with this for most of the winter, trying to figure out how he kept losing these items."

The answer to the family's glove conundrum was simple: move from Northern Virginia to Camp Pendleton, Calif., where such winter gear wasn't needed.

As a 7-year-old in the Camp Pendleton Youth League, Scott became an offensive juggernaut. In a one-day tournament at the end of the season, he had 32 points in one game and 45 the next.

Scott stayed in California until 1997 when he returned with his mother, Lisa Mackall, to the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Once his father moved back a year later to Chesapeake, Va., Scott went with him.

Though he didn't play his first year at Deep Creek High School, he made the varsity squad as a sophomore and didn't disappoint. He finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds in his first game. The following contest he had 27 points.

"After those first couple of games, that's when I realized I had a chance of playing Division I basketball," Scott said.

His senior season he averaged 24 points, 13.5 rebounds, four assists and five blocks. Scott committed to Temple, hoping to play for John Chaney. But when Chaney retired in March 2006, Scott decided to reopen his recruitment.

It was too late in the school year to get a scholarship from another college, so he enrolled at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va.

The rigorous schedule, he said, pushed him both mentally and physically. He was up at 5:45 a.m. each day for drill work and had monitored study sessions. The most intense period, however, came on the basketball court.

Scott joined a team that included future NBA player Jordan Crawford (Wizards) and college players Jeff Allen (Virginia Tech), Dorenzo Hudson (Virginia Tech) and Jeremy Jacob (Oregon). The Tigers would finish 25-5 and make the final four of the National Prep School Tournament.

"What really helped Mike was that we had three interior players that were very good," former Hargrave coach Kevin Keatts, now an assistant at Louisville, said. "They worked and fought each other every day and in the end made them better players."

Keatts said that even with the elite talent on the roster, Scott's work ethic and passion separated him from the group.

"Mike was nice to everyone and all of his teachers respected him," Keatts said. "But when he got on the court, he was an unbelievable competitor."

*****

Coach Tony Bennett has seen many talented players in his program -- whether in his three seasons in Charlottesville or at Washington State -- but few have gone through what Scott has.

He entered the program with high expectations, but his best season of the past four was a 17-16 record in 2007-2008. The coach that recruited him, Dave Leitao, was fired after Scott's sophomore year.

Following a tough next season for the Cavaliers, Scott began his senior campaign by averaging 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds a game for a 7-3 team.

He then injured his ankle during a walk-through in a December practice and reinjured it five games later, causing him to get surgery. The best option at the time was to redshirt and save a final year of eligibility.

"The guy has endured. That's the common theme," Bennett said. "He's had adversity in his own career with an injury and having to sit out to have surgery. He's had to endure not having success on the floor. It's so hard to turn a program around, but he's doing it."

Scott missed the final 21 games of what was supposed to be his senior year. It was especially disappointing because of his fast start -- he became the first Virginia player to post five consecutive double-doubles since Ralph Sampson in 1983.

"He was challenged to lead from the bench," Bennett said. "I told him, 'You can't help us on the court, but let's see you really stretch yourself and talk and pull these guys together.' "

Once known as the team jokester, Scott undertook a more serious leadership role. During games he provided guidance to younger teammates and taught them how to better read defenses.

On the side he trained with strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis to get back to peak condition. After the ankle surgery he gained 13 pounds, but a new diet and training regimen helped return him to 235.

"Working out and being on that diet has made me a little more lateral, mobile and explosive," Scott said. "It's really helped with guarding perimeters, but I'm still strong enough to guard post players. I'm more versatile."

Offensively, at 6-foot-8, Scott can post up smaller defenders. When guarded by a bigger, slower defender to negate his inside game, he can hit from long range or use his quickness to drive the lane. He also has a mid-range jumper that's unusually good for the college level.

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, whose team defeated the Cavaliers 63-60 on March 1, said Scott "has been probably the most difficult guy for us to defend in our league."

Scott ranks in the top five among ACC players in scoring average, rebounding, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. He's been Virginia's leading scorer and rebounder in 23 of its 30 games.

"He's just meant so much for this team on both ends of the ball," sophomore guard Joe Harris said. "Obviously Mike's leadership and ability has carried us throughout the season. Night in and night out he's real consistent."

Last Sunday's overtime faceoff against Maryland proved to be no different.

Less than a minute into the extra period Scott hit teammate Jontel Evans in stride, cutting to the basket for a 63-61 lead. He drew a foul on the next possession by going right at 7-1 Maryland center Alex Len and hit one of two free throws.

In the ensuing 5-0 run by the Cavaliers, Scott made two more mid-range jumpers to push the game out of reach. He added a pair of free throws in the waning seconds for a career-high 35 points -- seven during overtime -- in the 73-69 win.

"I told my teammates I had to be more assertive down the stretch, especially in late-game situations," Scott said. "This game I definitely tried to put the team on my back."

As Bennett smiled while shaking hands with the Maryland players and coaches, his star player was stoic. Scott's facial expression looked the same as it had on the bus ride three hours earlier.

But don't be fooled. After five years of hard work, he's ready to dance.

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