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December 6, 2012Go play against Wisconsin and its experienced big men on the road in a venue that has proven almost impossible for teams like your to win inside. Now turn around, come back home and three days later defend Green Bay's 7-footer. Now, go up against thick, physical, athletic post players from Tennessee four days later.
If those were the questions on the test for both Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins over the past eight days, consider them sufficiently passed.
Virginia (7-2) has won six-straight games, most recently a 46-38 grinder over the Volunteers in Charlottesville last night. Before that, they handed the Badgers an extra-rare home loss to a non-conference opponent before beating the Phoenix easily at home on Saturday.
Those wins came in large part because of how well UVa has looked with point guards back in the mix. But it was also due to the play of Mitchell and Atkins, quick-footed players who are growing into very clear and comfortable roles for fourth-year head coach Tony Bennett.
"It's going to have to be by committee," he said of the post players and their contributions. "I think this team is fairly balanced when you look at it for the most part."
Of his primary post guys, Bennett said, "They're quick. They're active. I keep repeating that but that makes a difference on the defensive end, on the glass."
Mitchell, the 6-foot-8 junior from Charlotte, came into this season knowing he had to produce more offensively. And for a group that would considerably feel the loss of Mike Scott's production, it was a given that Mitchell would have to score more. But his defense has been just as good. He had 14 points and a career-high 16 boards against Seattle several weeks ago. He posted his fourth-career double-double at Wisconsin and followed that with a 20-point, 9-rebound night against Green Bay.
Coming into Wednesday's showdown against UT, Mitchell was averaging a career-high 12.6 points and 9.4 rebounds. Against the Vols, he played a team-high 34 minutes, scored a game-high 13 points and pulled down a game-high 12 boards.
He had nearly as many offensive boards as Tennessee's starting five.
"We've grown up so much," Mitchell said of the Cavaliers. "We've matured as a team. We've found an identity...We've really embraced it. And it's getting us W's. So, can't really complain."
And then there's Atkins, a 6-foot-8 sophomore from Maryland who has shown quite the touch near the basket this season and an ability to be in the right position on D. He had a career-high 14 points and 7 rebounds at Wisconsin, a career-high 11 boards and 4 blocks against Green Bay, and was tasked with slowing down Tennessee's leading scorer when the Volunteers visited John Paul Jones Arena.
Coming in, Jarnell Stokes was averaging 13 points again. Behind a strong and disruptive defensive effort from Atkins, who had 3 blocks, Stokes was 2 of 5 from the field and scored just 5. Atkins, on the other hand, had 8 points and 5 boards in 33 minutes of action.
"We both had speed and agility," Atkins explained. "The physicality is what it came down to and we matched the physicality. I feel like we wanted it."
"Darion is quick off the floor," Bennett said. "Stokes is so strong. He's not going to play way over the top of you. So if you can stay in front of him, if you're quick off the floor, you might be able to bother him. But our plan was for the most part if he gets a catch, to really trap.
"When you've got that shifty guy on you, you can't quite feel him and a bigger-bodied player likes to do that. I thought when Darion had those chances, his quickness was disruptive."
UVa held the Vols to 28.8 percent shooting, thanks in large part to the activity inside and how effectively Virginia rebounded. Offensively challenged already, Tennessee was held to just 16 points in the first half. It was the fourth time this season the Wahoos hadn't allowed 20 points at intermission.
And UT only scored 38 points total, the fourth time since Bennett has been coach that UVa has done that to an opponent.
It's hard to believe that not that long ago, this team was 1-2 overall. Bennett said he knew the team had some potential, having played well in stretches.
"You're seeing Darion and Akil having a very nice stretch of basketball and coming into their own," Bennett said. "This was a game where, the last couple of games (t00), maybe they had an advantage athletically with their quickness."
Atkins said that he and Mitchell are comfortable in playing their sides of the floor and letting the possessions and the opportunities come. Once they get it going in the game, he said, it happens naturally. There is no rush or urgency to make something happen that isn't there.
"For me personally, I feel like this is something we expected to see," Atkins said. "We've been working really hard on post defense all throughout this season and I feel like it's coming to light."
To Mitchell, playing against Tennessee on the heels of its outing, gave the Wahoos a boost. In that game, the Vols lost to No. 15 Georgetown 37-36.
"I feel confident in our defense holding anybody to 36 on any given night," he said.
Bennett commented that he thought his post players "responded to this challenge and were in pretty good position."
Added Atkins, when asked if he was as confident now as he's ever been, "Yeah. Most definitely."