By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010; D04
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Whether the Tony Bennett Era at Virginia lasts a few years or a few decades, Wednesday night could be remembered for the first boos from the home crowd since Bennett became coach.
It might have marked the end of a new coach's honeymoon period or just another dose of a reality for a team rapidly plunging into ACC irrelevance, but the fans voiced their disdain throughout the Cavaliers' 69-50 loss to Florida State at John Paul Jones Arena. It was Virginia's fourth consecutive loss, including the second defeat by 19 points in three days.
"I can handle losses, but the manner in which we lost the last couple games has been frustrating," Bennett said, repeating a criticism he had of his team following Monday's 85-66 loss to Maryland. "Our limitations are there. You can see that. We struggle to score. But I don't think it's one or the other. I think when we get down, or adversity strikes, we aren't able to muster enough to rally from it. That's a concern. The mental toughness was lacking today."
Minutes after the Terrapins embarrassed Virginia (14-10, 5-6), Bennett declared Wednesday's game a "gut-check." The team practiced "briefly but intensely" on Tuesday, but the preparations did little to intensify the Cavaliers while the Seminoles' lead swelled to as great as 23 in the second half.
Their hot start from the beginning of the ACC schedule is now a footnote in a season almost unsalvageable. Aspirations of postseason play, much less an NCAA tournament appearance, are beginning to appear unrealistic.
"Through these rough times, it's easy for a team to fall apart," senior captain Jerome Meyinsse said. "We have to make sure everyone stays together, try to fix the problems we have."
Bennett made the first changes to the starting lineup in 10 games, swapping guards Calvin Baker and Jeff Jones in for Jontel Evans and Sammy Zeglinski. The move was intended to provide an injection of offense, but Virginia needed a last-minute push just to reach 50 points, which is the program's lowest scoring total in the history of John Paul Jones Arena.
While Florida State extended its second-half lead, Virginia star Sylven Landesberg remained on the bench for nearly seven minutes. The Cavaliers' top scorer was blanketed all night, and Bennett sought "fresh legs." Landesberg, who scored a season-low four points, was not made available for comment by a Virginia official.
Virginia's inability to consistently score makes it difficult to win unless Landesberg produces because opponents focus almost the entirety of their defensive efforts on stopping the Cavaliers' sophomore. Understanding this entering the season, Bennett said the Virginia needed to excel on defense and win with intangibles that have recently been lost.
"I don't think we brought the same effort the last two games that we have for the majority of the season," Meyinsse said. "The intensity has fallen, and when we're not playing our best as far as effort and winning the X-factor, we're going to struggle."
Baker, another senior captain, plans on calling a players' meeting to discuss whatever issues plague the team. He said basketball is meant to be played with a "free spirit," and that the team has recently been playing "blah."
"Someone's going to have to take the initiative to speak on it. That's where I come in at," Baker said. "We've had meetings throughout the year, but I don't think we've had a meeting like the one we're going to have."
Virginia can only hope a meeting works. At the beginning of the month, the Cavaliers were near the top of the ACC standings. The team crept into NCAA tournament discussions and Bennett was considered a front-runner for ACC coach of the year.
Bennett admitted that the early schedule worked to the Cavaliers' favor, but the difference in the past two games has gone beyond difficult opponents. Virginia has appeared flawed and lacking effort. With two road games preceding a visit from Duke, recovery must happen immediately if internal pride will be restored.