CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia senior Akil Mitchell laughed and rolled his eyes, then pointed toward the blue tape carefully laid across the practice floor at John Paul Jones Arena last month, a few feet inside the three-point arc.
The Cavaliers may have their most talented roster in years this season, and come armed with a preseason Associated Press ranking (No. 24) for the first time in more than a decade.
But Coach Tony Bennett started practice in September the same way he always does: with a meticulous tutorial on his trademark “pack line” defense, a variation on a sagging man-to-man.
Mitchell has been doing this for four years, “but you always learn little things.” Among those: His coach has no plans on changing the brand of basketball being played in Charlottesville this season, no matter how high the expectations.
“We’re gonna say it over and over again, the focus is still rely on this pack line right here and keep people from scoring,” Mitchell said. “We’re still gonna be a defensive team.”
But how Bennett balances this roster full of weapons with his own regimented style will be a compelling story line throughout the season, and perhaps will define his tenure at Virginia.
Bennett, 44, has enjoyed modest success since arriving on campus before the 2009-10 campaign. He has a 76-53 record and earned one NCAA tournament berth (2011) despite considerable program attrition.
Now, though, the Cavaliers return their top five scorers, including first-team all-ACC selection Joe Harris, from a team that barely missed an at-large berth on Selection Sunday. They also add forward Anthony Gill, a transfer from South Carolina, and guard Malcolm Brogdon (medical redshirt in 2012-13) to the mix. And with a rotation that could feature 11 players — just three of whom are upperclassmen — Bennett has set the stage for the sort of sustained prosperity Virginia fans have craved.
He just wants it to come on his own terms, playing a more modern version of the methodical style his father, former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett, pioneered.
“I don’t want to give away the core of what we do,” Bennett said last month.
Said Harris: “We certainly have the ability to put more points on the board, but I don’t think we’re gonna change the way we play a whole lot. Defense is always gonna remain constant as long as Coach Bennett is there. That’s a focal point. That’s what we feel is gonna give us the best chance to win games.”
Still, Bennett has installed slight offensive adjustments — he calls it “fine-tuning” — hopeful his team can create more points through offensive rebounding and more free throws. Last year, the Cavaliers finished within the top 40 nationally in offensive efficiency, but averaged the second-fewest points per game in the ACC.
It’s why there is a perception Bennett’s system isn’t conducive to offensive players, an assumption his players say isn’t accurate.
“I think we do have the chance to be the best offensive team, probably, the program has seen in my three years because we just have so many options at this point in terms of scoring,” Brogdon said. “And I think everybody will be able to flourish in this program because Coach Bennett allows guys to play with freedom. If you demonstrate that you can do something well, he lets you do it.”
Bennett, though, is known for being honest to a fault, especially during end-of-season meetings in which he explains in great detail a player’s weaknesses and what his role should be on the team. He realizes the blunt approach may be behind why nine players have transferred during his time at Virginia.
Nonetheless, he has taken that a step further this season, admitting at the team’s media day to being harsher with his veterans this year, well aware they haven’t accomplished anything just yet despite preseason optimism. In Bennett’s mind, there is a process, and even with better personnel, it hasn’t changed this year.
“I think as I do this longer, I become more honest with what I see, and that probably has cost me some recruits . . . Right or wrong, I’m not changing on that,” he said. “You can say a lot of things about me, and even the players that have left, ‘I didn’t fit.’
“But they can’t say they were misled when they came to this program. You don’t have a lot of things in this profession. The one thing you’ve got is your word, and I’m not messing with that.”