Had you cornered Virginia Coach Tony Bennett following his team’s practice Wednesday and asked him to predict Thursday night’s outcome at Georgia Tech, he most definitely would not have foreseen one of the Cavaliers’ most efficient overall performances of the season.
The players languished for most of Wednesday’s practice in a funk Bennett struggled to explain even a day later, after Virginia’s 70-38 victory over the Yellow Jackets. Maybe it had something to do with Wednesday being the first day of classes of the spring semester. Maybe it had something to do with Virginia’s No. 15 national ranking and the wide acclaim that has accompanied it.
Whatever it was, it had led to a largely sub-par practice. Then the team departed Charlottesville for Atlanta, showed up at Philips Arena the next night and thoroughly dominated a seemingly apathetic Georgia Tech squad.
“You don’t see that coming,” Bennett said late Thursday night. “We felt like we needed to have three guys come to the table, scoring-wise, but we got off to a good start offensively. We got a lot of nice looks, and I thought [sophomore guard Joe Harris] was real sharp early and got us off to a good start. And then our defense kind of took hold, and we made them earn.”
The Cavaliers (15-2, 2-1 ACC) averaged 1.18 points per possession Thursday — which is an extremely proficient effort, especially by this team’s standards — and held Georgia Tech (8-10, 1-3) to 0.64 points per possession — which is, well, not proficient at all.
There were almost exactly the same number of possessions (roughly 60) in Virginia’s loss at Duke, and for comparison’s sake, here was the Cavaliers’ points per possession tally that night: 0.98.
As Bennett mentioned, one key to Virginia’s offensive turnaround was the number of players from which the Cavaliers got significant production. Harris tallied 11 points in the first half and finished with 16 on 7 of 10 shooting. Fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott recovered from a first half in which he shot 2 for 7 from the field to tally a game-high 18 points. Fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski rebounded from his 0-for-8 shooting performance at Duke to record 10 points Thursday.
It marked the first time in three ACC games this season that Virginia had three players score in double figures. The Cavaliers shot 48.3 percent, their most accurate shooting performance since making half their shots during a 69-42 win over Maryland-Eastern Shore on Dec. 27.
All that after a practice that Bennett described as “shaky” and that several players called “sluggish.” Scott said there were too many careless turnovers and the team’s defense was nowhere near acceptable for most of the workout.
Junior guard Jontel Evans said that typically the team flies into a city the day before a road game and then practices at a local gym. This time, though, Virginia practiced on campus in Charlottesville before catching a flight to Atlanta. Evans said that itinerary afforded the players extra time to rest their bodies and clear their heads in advance of Thursday night’s game.
Still, in his pregame talk to the team, Bennett sensed his squad might not be fully focused, and so he catered his message to address that issue. The coach was concerned that his players might be allowing external expectations and the vast praise that has followed Virginia’s strong start to the season to get to them.
In addition to climbing to No. 15 in the Associated Press top 25 poll – its highest AP poll ranking since Feb. 2002 – the Cavaliers are witnessing their bandwagon grow more crowded by the week. On Wednesday, the Web site Grantland.com slotted Virginia at No. 10 in its power rankings and predicted that the Cavaliers will advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament this season.
“We talked about really just kind of freeing your mind up and competing and not being worried about where we’re ranked, trying to keep this thing going,” Bennett said of his pregame talk. “Just come out and play. Be who we are and play.”
The players obliged. They committed just eight turnovers, held Georgia Tech to 29.2 percent shooting and outrebounded the Yellow Jackets, 45-22.
Zeglinski pointed out that the Yellow Jackets “obviously didn’t have their best game,” and that certainly would seem to be true. But as solid as Virginia performed on both ends of the court Thursday, it might not have altered the final outcome drastically even if Georgia Tech had been firing on a few more cylinders.
“To come in and shake [Wednesday’s] practice off, to shake that Duke game off,” Scott said, “it was really important for us.”
Said Bennett, “Go figure.”