Following Tony Bennett's lead, Virginia basketball enters ACC tournament with signs of life

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011

CHARLOTTESVILLE - As the Virginia men's basketball team toiled through a regular season that included scheme-altering injuries and offensive displays of offense, Coach Tony Bennett demanded two things above all else from his players: that they recognize their limitations and stick to his plan.

The Cavaliers (16-14, 7-9 ACC) adhered to that rule and, consequently, reached marks many observers thought unattainable several months ago: namely, an improved conference win total from a season ago and a No. 8 seed in the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C. Virginia will face ninth-seeded Miami (18-13, 6-10) at noon Thursday.

Most important, from Bennett's perspective, the Cavaliers proved over the past nine weeks that his system of stingy defense and a meticulous offense can keep Virginia competitive against the league's most talent-laden squads, even under unenviable circumstances.

When Virginia's leading scorer and rebounder, senior forward Mike Scott, was lost for the season in December because of an ankle injury and senior forward Will Sherrill, another starter, was hobbled by a leg injury of his own, the Cavaliers employed a four-guard lineup. They needed a last-second basket to defeat Norfolk State on Dec. 20 before losing consecutive games to Seattle and Iowa State.

"There are times when you're like: 'We're not progressing. Are we making enough progress? Are we going in the right direction?' You sort of ask those questions," Bennett said. "I remember thinking: 'Man, we're a different team now. We've got to become a different team now. Can we become competitive enough to get this thing to where it needs to be?'

"And that was hard, wondering, thinking about that. That's why I'm proud of our guys because they kept fighting, kept trying to find ways."

Bennett knows his team doesn't have the talent of traditional powers Duke and North Carolina, which is why he believes it is crucial for Virginia to develop a system that will level the playing field.

The two non-negotiable terms of Bennett's philosophy - the foundation on which he is attempting to rebuild the Virginia program - are defensive pugnacity and steadfast ball control. Thus far, the Cavaliers have complied.

No ACC team has recorded fewer turnovers in conference play than Virginia over Bennett's two seasons in Charlottesville, and only three teams (Duke, Florida State and Clemson) have allowed fewer combined points.

This year, the Cavaliers held ACC opponents to a lower scoring average (62.2 points per game) than any other conference team.

But Virginia, for the second straight season, also finished last in ACC games in points per game (59.3), and Bennett understands the Cavaliers cannot advance to the next stage in the rebuilding process - the one in which they earn at-large bids to the NCAA tournament - unless their ability to score improves.

That, though, is a concern that doesn't matter in the present, where progress is paramount and long-term solutions are someone else's luxury.

"I'd rather have improvement this year and be 7-9 even though our offensive production has been at the bottom," said Bennett, whose team has won four of five. "I'd rather be there than have 10 more points [per game] and be in the top half and not be able to be as competitive and be in games.

"I think that's understanding that this is our team right now, personnel-wise. This is what we have. Those first two years are about this phase that first a team must be competitive to win their share."

Virginia kept its season from unraveling because it remained acutely observant of the team's ever-evolving state. At the very least, Bennett said, that's reason for continued optimism.

"We've got to improve; it's got to get better," Bennett said. "But it was a step in the right direction from last year. And I think that was important. I really do."

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