After returning to Charlottesville at the start of the week from the Czech Republic on a high after helping lead Team USA to a gold medal in the FIBA U19 world championships, Virginia men's basketball coach Tony Bennett was blindsided with a double hit of bad news regarding his Cavaliers.
U.Va. senior starting forward Akil Mitchell will be out of action for the next four-to-six weeks after suffering a broken right hand, and sophomore backup guard Taylor Barnette has decided to leave the program to seek more playing time elsewhere.
Mitchell sent Bennett a text message Wednesday morning after having his pinky finger and shooting hand checked.
Mitchell's injury is the second significant offseason injury suffered by one of U.Va.'s returning team leaders. Senior starting guard Joe Harris suffered a slight stress reaction last month that kept him from participating in the USA Basketball Men's World University Games team training camp, and was expected to keep him sidelined for three-to-six weeks.
"These guys are going into their last year," said Bennett regarding Mitchell and Harris. "Sometimes it forces them to take a little bit of time off, not a crazy amount, to refresh their bodies. I think when you're injured like that, nothing serious, but when you have to step away for four-to-six weeks, you really get that desire back.
"I think it will refresh them. As long as there are no complications, which we don't suspect there will be any, they'll be ready to go in plenty of time once we get back into school and all that stuff."
Mitchell, a 6-foot-8 native of Charlotte, N.C., averaged 13.1 points and a team-best 8.9 rebounds per game last season on his way to earning third-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors for the 23-12 Cavaliers.
Harris, a 6-6 native of Chelan, Wash., led U.Va. with 16.3 points per game last season while shooting 42.5 percent from 3-point range (77 of 181). He was a first team All-ACC pick.
Mitchell just got back this week from LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas. Bennett is back after serving an assistant coach for Team USA in the U19 championships. U.Va. sophomore forward Mike Tobey played a backup role on Team USA, averaging 4.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game during USA's 9-0 run.
Bennett said Mitchell told him he "popped his finger." Bennett added the break is actually just below the pinky finger on Mitchell's right hand.
Barnett, a 6-3 native of Lexington, Ky., is leaving the team to try to find a bigger role with another program. He averaged 2.6 points per game last season as a freshman, shooting 43.2 percent (19 of 44) from 3-point range in 26 games played.
"I always say you're surprised, never shocked, in today's day and age with transfers," Bennett said.
"You always hope that a guy will stay, but he's decided (transferring is) what he wants to do, so we'll give him the release and he'll move on."
Since taking over as U.Va.'s coach in March 2009, Bennett has had nine players leave his program early, including seven of the 18 freshmen he's had under his guidance.
"The days of being a ninth, 10th or 11th guy, fighting for time and being patient and waiting, are harder and harder to come by," Bennett said. "It really, really is. There are different reasons why guys leave, but it's just more and more of a reality that it's a different time."
Barnett, who also asked for and was granted a release from a scholarship at Central Florida before signing a letter of intent last year with U.Va., joins Paul Jesperson as the second U.Va. player to leave the program this offseason. Jesperson, who started 33 games last season and averaged 4.7 points per game, would've been a junior next season at U.Va.
"I am grateful for the opportunity given to me by coach Bennett and his staff," Barnette said in a release from the athletic department. "I will miss all of the great people I have had the opportunity to live life with this past year, especially all of my awesome teammates."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun