Virginia senior Joe Harris never bought into the preseason hype. He realized quickly being ranked in the preseason AP poll for the first time since 2001 guaranteed the Cavaliers nothing.
But after Monday night, on the heels of Virginia’s second-most lopsided defeat since Coach Tony Bennett took over the program five years ago, Harris decided to talk to each of his teammates individually to offer a “humbling” reminder of where this program stands.
“We ride a very fine line and when we’re right, we can play with most teams in the country. But when we’re not right, we’re gonna get blown out,” Harris said when asked what was gained from a 87-52 loss at Tennessee. “We got the message loud and clear. It was definitely a wakeup call for us and showed us that we can’t be playing the way we have been or it’s gonna be a very long year for us.
“We have to find our identity and play what Virginia basketball is all about, and that’s a team that doesn’t get outworked or out-toughed. We should’ve realized we had those expectations because of the way we played in years past, with teams that had less talent, but were more sound defensively and offensively.”
The first chance to rebound comes Saturday when Virginia opens ACC play at Florida State. The Cavaliers (9-4), still searching for their first road win this year, have a 10-game losing streak in Tallahassee dating from 2001.
But while the Seminoles (9-3) appear to be one of the teams Virginia will compete with for an NCAA tournament bid come March, this latest matchup will be more about rediscovering a formula for success.
With more depth, the Cavaliers are averaging more points per game than last season and still rank in the top five in the nation in scoring defense. And unlike last season, Virginia will enter conference play without having stumbled against a team ranked outside the top 100 in the Ratings Percentage Index.
But few expected this season’s group to start 2014 without a marquee nonconference victory. The Cavaliers’ best win to date came over Southern Methodist on a neutral court.
According to Ken Pomeroy’s College Basketball Ratings, Virginia has gone from No. 89 in the country in offensive efficiency last year to No. 151 this season, thanks to averaging more turnovers (12.8) than it ever has under Bennett and a decline in perimeter shooting. In Virginia’s past two losses, Green Bay and Tennessee shot better than 56 percent in the first half.
Harris believes the issues go hand in hand because the Cavaliers have “a tendency to get impatient and that’s when we rush shots and that’s allowed teams to get out in transition and allowed them to break down the defense.”
“Sometimes we feel like we try to rely on our offense because we have so much offensive talent, and we forget that our roots is the defensive end,” added sophomore Justin Anderson (Montrose Christian), who has led Virginia in scoring the last three games. “That’s who we are and that’s who we’ve been.”
Bennett has yet to find a solution that works for more than stretches of games and used his seventh starting lineup of the season at Tennessee. Through a team spokesman, he declined an interview request this week ahead of Saturday’s league opener.
Harris refuses to blame the constant rotation shuffling for any of the team’s struggles, and suggested that Bennett is still trying to identify the right mix of players that are “buying into the system and believing in the system.”
He also brought up his own “disappointing” play, even though he’s the lone player on the team averaging double figures in scoring (11.1). The first-team all-ACC selection, who averaged 16.3 points last season, has made just 33.3 percent of his shots over the past five games.
Harris, though, hopes his team isn’t ready to panic just yet.
“There’s a lot of season left and what’s important is we’re playing our best basketball at the end of the year,” Harris said. “We have a lot to prove going forward and we’re excited to get into ACC play and prove ourselves. We feel we’re a quality basketball team that hasn’t necessarily displayed that to this point.”
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