RALEIGH, N.C. — Virginia Coach Tony Bennett took the question in stride, offering up a joke about his Wisconsin roots.
His style of play, predicated on a commitment to defense and a patient offense, had long ago been labeled everything from boring to ruthless depending on your view of how basketball should be played. So when a Memphis-based reporter suggested the Cavaliers are a “plodding kind of ballclub” on Saturday afternoon, Bennett came back with his own observation: “We have better athletes than you think.”
That he would defend the approach that has left Virginia on the verge of its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1995 came as no surprise. But it also offered a glimpse into the tempo-based battle that could define the top-seeded Cavaliers’ East Region second-round matchup against No. 9 seed Memphis on Sunday night.
The Tigers played at a faster pace than any team in the American Athletic Conference this season. Only 33 teams in the country averaged more possessions per 40 minutes, and Coach Josh Pastner declared Saturday afternoon, “There’s no pace that’s too fast for us.”
Virginia resides on the other end of the spectrum. It ranked 336th in the nation in possessions per game and prefers to break down an opponent’s will methodically. There likely will be no middle ground, and the Cavaliers know it may well determine perceptions going forward.
“It’s a test of our defense and our foundation and what this program is built on,” guard Malcolm Brogdon said.
Virginia has had few issues during its surge to national prominence over the past few months, but one of its exposed weaknesses has been stopping the dribble penetration of quick guards.
In nonconference play, Green Bay’s Keifer Sykes had 21 points and 10 assists in a 75-72 win. To close the regular season March 9, meanwhile, Maryland guards Dez Wells and Seth Allen knifed through Virginia’s pack-line defense when the Terrapins scored a 75-69 victory.
Bennett mentioned both of those results Saturday. But he noted Memphis guard Joe Jackson, one of four seniors who sees extensive playing time in the team’s back court, might be the quickest player his team has seen yet.
Jackson, the team’s leading scorer (14.3 points) and distributor (4.6 assists) knows it, too.
“I don’t think we played a defensive team like that,” Jackson said of Virginia. “But then again, I don’t think they played against a team as quick as ours throughout the year.”
Point guard London Perrantes, who has done wonders for Virginia’s offensive efficiency with his court vision and timely three-point shooting, remains a liability at times on the defensive end. Jackson said he will try to “rattle” the true freshman, and Bennett conceded Perrantes would need to be as steady as ever against Memphis, which often breaks out a run-and-jump press.
That’s not to say Virginia can’t survive if it gets into an up-and-down game. In the ACC tournament, sophomore Justin Anderson said, Florida State sped up the Cavaliers more than most, drawing the ire of Bennett before corralling the pace more to their liking.
Keeping Memphis off the fast break has been the focus of Virginia’s preparation, and Bennett will continue to send just two players to grab offensive rebounds in hopes of creating “a wall” on the other end.
Just three of the Tigers’ 24 victories this season came when they scored less than 70 points. Virginia, on the other hand, has the nation’s top scoring defense and hasn’t allowed an opponent to shoot better than 50 percent in 22 straight games, a streak that dates from its season-changing loss at Tennessee on Dec. 30.
So while Bennett’s formula for success may well border on “plodding” at times, he realized “who can get to their game first” will ultimately determine which team heads to Madison Square Garden for the East Region semifinals next week and which one will watch from home.
“That’s the exciting part,” Bennett said. “Can this system, can our togetherness, hold up against that kind of speed and quickness?”
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