Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett searching for answers to struggles


Virginia guard Joe Harris, left, talks with teammate Darion Atkins, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game. (Steve Helber/AP)
December 19, 2013

Moments after losing to his alma mater, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett gathered his team in the visitor’s locker room and delivered a reality check. The Cavaliers’ 75-72 setback at Green Bay was their second straight defeat during what Bennett had deemed “Wisconsin week,” and the coach felt compelled to warn his players about what could be coming.

“I have to consider everything,” Bennett told them before explaining he might adopt a new lineup going forward or change his substitution patterns or even cut down on his rotation altogether.

Anything to jump-start a season that has started slower than anticipated.

“I’m still looking to see what helps us best, and I don’t feel like I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like, ‘Yep, this is it,’ ” Bennett said this week. “I feel like there’s something better out there for us, and we’ve got to come across that. . . . I’m still searching is I guess what I’d say, and I don’t feel 100 percent comfortable that we’ve found it.”

Because of an exam break, the Cavaliers (7-3) will have had nearly two weeks to stew over a two-game losing streak when they take the floor against Northern Iowa on Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena.

Bennett is wary of the Panthers (5-5). They beat Virginia Commonwealth last weekend and nearly upset No. 17 Iowa State earlier this month. He realizes Virginia has yet to resemble for any length of time the top 25 squad it was predicted to be during the preseason.

“The teams that have beat us all played well, and I don’t know if I’d say we laid an egg in any of those games,” Bennett said. “We were incomplete.”

Defense remains Virginia’s calling card, and it’s why two of its three losses have been by three points. The other was a 48-38 decision to No. 4 Wisconsin on Dec. 4. Offensively, though, turnovers and missed free throws have become issues that can no longer be overlooked, especially given the way the Cavaliers’ methodical pace limits possessions.

Virginia has accomplished Bennett’s preseason goal of taking more free throws, but he joked this week, “I should’ve said make more free throws.”

His team is making just 64.4 percent of its foul shots, 293rd nationally. Joe Harris, Virginia’s best three-point shooter, has made only 53.8 percent of his free throws.

Compounding that issue is Virginia’s carelessness with the ball. The Cavaliers are averaging more turnovers (13.3) than they ever have under Bennett, and they’re on pace to have a negative assist-to-turnover ratio for the first time since 2008-09.

But freshman point guard London Perrantes isn’t the issue; he has 32 assists and 12 turnovers.

Instead, guard Malcolm Brogdon and forwards Akil Mitchell, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey have all been credited with at least 15 turnovers.

Mitchell, a third-team all-ACC selection a year ago, has gone from 13.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game to 6.3 points and 4.8 rebounds.

So Bennett spent a large part of this two-week hiatus comparing film from a year ago with now, and he noted the number of dunks Mitchell slammed home off the playmaking ability of others.

It reminded him how effective the Cavaliers were when they used four-guard lineups, with 6-foot-6 Justin Anderson (Montrose Christian) serving as the power forward. He also used Mitchell and forward Darion Atkins (Landon) on the floor together more, a front-court lineup he has avoided for the most part this season.

Turns out it’s the sort of self-reflection Bennett planned all along.

“I’ve felt comfortable in stretches and then I’ve been frustrated in stretches and this schedule, I think, is good because it’s revealing those areas we need to get better at,” he said.

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