A lot of players will say that it doesn’t make a difference whether they start or come off the bench.
Virginia junior Darion Atkins doesn’t seem to be one of those players.
Atkins said as much following UVa’s 57-43 win over Northern Iowa on Saturday.
“I don’t want to say I’m more serious,” said Atkins, when asked about his mindset as a starter, “but I guess there’s something about being in the starting lineup – I guess you have a responsibility to come out and start the game the right way.”
Atkins definitely did that.
Within the first two minutes, he blocked a shot and scored Virginia’s first basket.
The 6-foot-8 forward finished with eight points, five rebounds and a career-high five blocks in his first start of the season.
Atkins said Virginia coach Tony Bennett was hoping for that kind of performance from him.
“[Bennett] wanted me to finally show up and play my game,” Atkins said. “He told me a few practices ago that he was going to give me a chance to get back to where I needed to be.
“I felt like I capitalized on that opportunity, and hopefully I can keep it going.”
Atkins seems like a good bet to be back in the starting lineup when Virginia (8-3) hosts Norfolk State tonight.
The Spartans (8-4) have won six of their last eight games, though they haven’t beaten anybody of note. They’re coming off a 70-67 loss to Seattle on Thursday.
Norfolk State is led by MEAC Preseason Player of the Year Pendarvis Williams, a 6-foot-6 guard out of Philadelphia who was on the Spartans squad that upset No. 2 seeded Missouri in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
“They’re good,” Bennett said. “We’ll have to be ready – college basketball is showing that. We have great respect for Norfolk State and how they play.
“They’ll have quickness and I know that they’ve been mixing it up, but they’re off to a great start... we’ve got to be ready.”
When Atkins is in the game, he provides a defensive presence that Virginia doesn’t have when either Anthony Gill or Mike Tobey is on the floor.
“Maybe your defense breaks down a little bit, but when you have Darion back there, five blocks, and you put Justin [Anderson] as a 4, that cleans up some mistakes you make,” said Bennett, following Saturday's game.
The flip side is that Atkins doesn’t provide as much offensive pop as Gill or Tobey, who played just five and eight minutes, respectively, against UNI.
Atkins, who hadn’t started since injuring his shin halfway through last season, says that having such a deep team this season has been an adjustment for the players and the coaching staff.
“They’ve never really had a team where they’ve had to play so many guys at one time and get guys minutes,” Atkins said. “It’s just been hard on all of us. We’re slowly but surely coming along with it.”
Atkins added: “We have so much depth and talent and experience this year that nobody knows who’s going to play...
“You just always pray it’s you.”
Virginia beat Norfolk State in the first round of last season's NIT, 67-56. ... After tonight, UVa has just one non-conference game left – at Tennessee on Dec. 30 – before opening ACC play at Florida State on Jan. 4.