There are several obvious differences in the makeup of the Virginia men’s basketball team entering conference play this year as opposed to last year. Six players have left the program, either via graduation or transfer. Three freshmen have joined the roster.
But perhaps the most significant difference this season is the experience fifth-year seniors Mike Scott and Sammy Zeglinski – both of whom now are healthy – bring to the table. And paired with the maturity gained by the team’s other players through last season’s tribulations, that experience has made Virginia better equipped this year to, as Coach Tony Bennett said, “reel it back in” after slow starts on either end of the floor.
The Cavaliers are 13-1 and ranked No. 21 entering the start of ACC play, which is a vast improvement from the 10-5 mark* Virginia owned at this point last season. Remember that run of putrid basketball the Cavaliers played in December 2010, when they beat Norfolk State by one and then lost consecutive games to Seattle and Iowa State? Virginia’s primary flaw back then was that it couldn’t recover from early miscues, that it allowed slow starts to evolve into poor game-long efforts.
* Last season, Virginia played one conference game (a 57-54 win at Virginia Tech) in December. That wasn’t the case this season.
But the Cavaliers seem to have rid themselves of that trait this season. They still have a knack for losing focus and getting off to slow starts offensively or defensively (or both) at times, but thus far they’ve demonstrated an ability to recover. On Tuesday, Bennett traced that ability back to some of his team’s veteran leaders.
“I think with the experience of Mike and having a guy that is an inside-outside presence, and certainly Sammy with his experience, and the improvements of each individual player, I hope we’re improved from that,” Bennett said during his segment of the ACC coaches’ teleconference. “It seems like there were some games maybe last year that we would have been in that we’ve been in this year that perhaps we might not have been able to come out on top. I think that’s just experience.
“We’ve certainly missed some guys from last year — Mustapha [Farrakhan] and Will Sherrill when he was healthy — but that’s part of the progression of guys leaving. But I think we’re a little more mature that at least up to this point there have been some games we’ve pulled out or have reeled it back in that maybe last year would have been harder for us.”
Bennett referenced two games in particular at various points during his teleconference: Virginia’s wins at Seattle (83-77) on Dec. 21 and at home against Towson (57-50) on Friday. In both contests, the Cavaliers allowed an inferior opponent to hang around until the very end. Certainly, credit must be given to Seattle and Towson for their effort. But with a team of Virginia’s apparent talent, it would seem those tight results were more a by-product of the Cavaliers not performing up to their capability.
“We’re an interesting team,” Bennett said. “We’ve come to the realization that when we aren’t right or really playing together or focused, we’re very susceptible. We were on the ropes against Towson, certainly at Seattle, and those teams played very good games. They were very passionate and came after us. We were a little sluggish and didn’t have I guess the required amount of focus or conviction to play at the level needed. And when that happens, we become very susceptible and below average.
“But when we’re locked in and playing well, we can compete with a lot of teams and that has happened in some of our other games. So there’s that fine line that you’re always walking. That’s just always a reality check for yourself as a coach and your players. What I like about the team is they certainly do play hard. They’re very committed to trying to keep improving our program. We’ve got to keep clawing and scrapping for that respectability to just be a team that is hard to play against.”
If nothing else, Virginia has been just that this season. The Cavaliers are holding opponents to an average of 50.4 points per game thus far this season. Only one team in the nation (Wisconsin) is allowing fewer points per game.
But sometimes that isn’t enough, specifically when the team’s offense stalls. And this is where the value of Scott, Zeglinski and sophomore Joe Harris comes in. It’s safe to say that Virginia’s success the rest of the season depends in large part on the offensive consistency of those three players. On most nights, the Cavaliers will need each of them to score 12 to 17 points in order for them to be in the game.
Fortunately for Virginia, Scott, Zeglinski and Harris each appear to possess the degree of dependability their team needs from them.
At this time last year, Scott was nearing a second surgery on his ankle that would keep him out the rest of the season. Zeglinski was still gaining traction after missing the first seven games of the season while recovering from offseason knee surgery. And Harris was a freshman who’d been thrown into the starting lineup and asked to assume considerable responsibility at an early point in his collegiate career.
Fast forward to the present, where Scott and Zeglinski are relatively healthy and Harris has 39 games as a starter and primary contributor under his belt. Scott is averaging 16 points and nine rebounds. Zeglinski is shooting 42.9 percent from the field and 43.3 percent from three-point range in 28.7 minutes per game*. Harris is leading the team in minutes per game (30.6) and is Virginia’s second-leading scorer (13 ppg) and rebounder (3.9).
* At this point last season, Zeglinski was shooting 28.3 percent from the field and 25.7 percent from three-point range. He had averaged 19 minutes per game in eight contests. Clearly, he was not yet back to full strength.
Virginia was picked to finish fourth in the ACC in the conference’s preseason media poll, but as Bennett noted, there wasn’t much separation between teams picked No. 4-7. Indeed, while the Cavaliers earned 463 votes, Clemson – picked to finish seventh – garnered 403. To put that in perspective, Florida State was picked to finish third and collected 560 votes, while North Carolina State was picked to finish eighth and earned 316 votes.
The point Bennett was trying to make is that he expects his team to be involved in a lot of close games in the coming months – perhaps as soon as Saturday when Virginia begins its ACC slate at home against Miami (9-4) – and he knows consistency will be of utmost importance.
“I think there are very few elite teams,” Bennett said. “And it seems like what separates the really good teams from the teams that are average or not so good, I think it’s, you know, everybody in stretches can show real nice play. They’ve got guys who can make plays and play hard defense, make the stops and rebounds. But it’s really the teams that do it over the course of the game, who kind of possession-by-possession will do it right – you’re not going to get it right all the time – that kind of last. Some teams are so talented, but most are all in that realm of, you know, they’re close. . . .
“But I think it’s really both ends of the floor and a degree of execution and togetherness that is our strength, because person-for-person, we’re not going to blow you away.”