The Virginia men’s basketball team is off to a 4-1 start in large part due to its stingy defense. Opponents have shot 34.2 percent from the field and 24.7 percent (18 of 73) from three-point range and managed 46 points per game against the Cavaliers.
But as promising as that development is for third-year Coach Tony Bennett, his team’s offensive struggles have been something of an early concern. During a three-game stretch over the weekend at the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands, Virginia averaged 54.7 points per contest.
According to Bennett, a number of issues has factored into Virginia’s offensive struggles thus far: The Cavaliers have been turnover-prone (14.3 per game at the Paradise Jam), have not shot well from three-point range (28.1 percent at the Paradise Jam; 33.3 percent on the season) and have not been at full strength because of an ankle injury to fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski.
“We’re a possession by possession team,” Bennett said in a teleconference Wednesday. “It’s been taking teams a while to break our defense down, at least in these initial games, and so that flow of the possessions, they really matter.”
At the Paradise Jam, Bennett said, his team had too many “empty possessions,” meaning the Cavaliers did not move the ball swiftly enough and, thus, did not produce enough quality, uncontested shots.
Bennett said Zeglinski’s experience and “feel” will be significant to the team this season and not having him fully available has been a hindrance. Zeglinski sat out the first two games of the season because of a sprained ankle. In his first game back — a 57-55 loss Friday to Texas Christian — he re-injured the ankle and played no more than 22 minutes in each of the next two contests.
“It wasn’t quite there, but he gave it everything he had,” Bennett said of Zeglinski. “But it didn’t get any worse as he played, which I think is a good sign.”
Bennett said the team would get a better feel for how Zeglinski’s ankle responded to playing three games in four days when the players reconvene for practice Wednesday afternoon. Virginia will practice today and Thursday in advance of Friday’s home game against Wisconsin-Green Bay (2-3).
Until the Cavaliers’ offense comes around, Bennett at least can take solace in knowing his team’s defense is capable of keeping Virginia in games. That certainly was the case at the Paradise Jam.
“It was one of those situations where guys understood we’ve got to make this other team really work because, for whatever reason, we were scoring at a high clip,” Bennett said. “But we know that’s going to be important. As the competition continues to improve and build up, as you watch these teams on TV knowing our league and all that, we’re not going to be able to just out-talent, man-for-man, our opponent.
“So I think our guys have a healthy perspective or understanding of the significance of being real stingy on defense and playing it to the hilt and the kind of concentration and commitment that’s needed. And we’ve got to take that to the offensive end, too.”