Tony Bennett started shaking his head before the question was even finished. The Virginia men’s basketball team had just lost to No. 20 Florida State, 60-58, on Saturday in Charlottesville after Seminoles sophomore Dwayne Bacon scored a game-high 29 points, capped by the winning three-pointer with four seconds left. Now the Cavaliers coach was being asked who his go-to perimeter defender is this season.
He gave a small shrug before answering.
“Sure. It’s Devon [Hall] or Marial [Shayok], perhaps it’s Darius [Thompson],” Bennett rattled off. “With a guy [Bacon’s] size [6 feet 7], you probably need some length and athleticism, so you just see who can guard him the best, so I’ll watch the tape and get a better look. . . . Again, we need everybody, and it’s just trying to balance it. But we need to be a little sounder down the stretch. A lot sounder.”
Bennett’s answer would have been less of a mouthful last year, when Virginia had Malcolm Brogdon to stick on players who got hot. In the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament, Butler’s Andrew Chrabascz had 24 points on the Cavaliers before Brogdon finally asked to defend him. Chrabascz scored one point after that, and Virginia rallied to reach the Sweet 16.
So far this season, the Cavaliers have gone about things by committee. Florida State, which was bumped up eight spots to No. 12 in this week’s Associated Press rankings after the upset, revealed a flaw in that design: Virginia doesn’t yet have a lock-down defender.
It’s a hole in the roster that will be put to the test Wednesday, when No. 11 Virginia (11-2, 1-1 ACC) travels to Pittsburgh for a 9 p.m. game. The Panthers (11-3, 0-1) have two of the four players in the ACC averaging more than 20 points per game in seniors Michael Young (22.9) and Jamel Artis (21.2).
Team defense worked well for Virginia in its first ACC game of the season, an impressive 61-53 victory at then-No. 6 Louisville, which was coming off a win at home over Kentucky. But Louisville has the 11th-rated scoring offense in the ACC; its top scorer contributes 12.4 points per game.
Artis and Young have scored at least 20 points apiece in the same game seven times this season. Each totaled 55 points over the team’s past two games, a 112-106 win over Marshall and a 78-77 loss to Notre Dame.
“Those guys can score,” Bennett said, chuckling on his radio show Monday. “You pray, you work hard in practice — no. You make them earn, got to learn from the Bacon situation and be ready to go.”
Missing a go-to defender stresses Virginia’s system even more this year because its youth leaves a smaller margin for error.
The Cavaliers held the Seminoles to season lows in points and shooting percentage (40.8). But they couldn’t stop Bacon, who made 11 of 18 shots from the field, including 6 of 9 three-point attempts. The sophomore beat the Cavaliers’ defense on another key play with three minutes left and the game tied at 51, when he rebounded the second of two missed free throws and hit a jumper.
The same thing happened when Virginia failed to box out in a close win at California before Christmas. In that case, freshman Kyle Guy’s 14 points in the second half were enough to bail the Cavaliers out of a shooting slump.
There was no such savior against Florida State, which handed Virginia its first loss in an ACC home opener since 2011.
“When you don’t block out on a free throw, when you turn the ball over a few times and it leads to layups or some costly turnovers down the stretch, you can’t always get bailed out with a fallaway three in the corner,” Bennett said after the loss Saturday. “I thought we lacked the ability to do the little things. We always talk about what things help us eliminate losing, and when you have some of those careless turnovers or nonchalant turnovers, it’s hard to win.”