OMAHA — There are several non-negotiable components to Virginia Coach Tony Bennett’s system. Players must communicate and fill in gaps to help their teammates on defense, and they must swing the ball and be in near-constant motion on offense.
The Cavaliers executed those principles in Bennett’s third season in Charlottesville; they went 22-9 and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. Whether 10th-seeded Virginia continues to do so Friday in its matchup against seventh-seeded Florida (23-10) largely will determine if the Cavaliers can advance to the round of 32.
That’s what had Bennett and his staff concerned on the flight home from Atlanta on March 9 following Virginia’s 67-64 loss to North Carolina State in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. Too often, the Cavaliers had been fragmented on defense and stagnant on offense.
So during the team’s film session the following morning, Bennett had the players watch the television broadcast of the N.C. State game in its entirety (minus commercials). It was something Bennett never had done during his tenure in Charlottesville. Typically, players said, film sessions last 10 to 15 minutes. This one took more than an hour.
“We want them to understand that at this point in the season, everything matters,” Virginia assistant Ron Sanchez said Thursday. “I know that we’re down to seven guys, but this is the time of year when none of that stuff should matter. It should be sharp. We’ve been doing this for a long time. We just felt like we weren’t as united as we’d been in the past.”
Because mistakes are magnified in the postseason and the consequences of defeat are more dire, this week the Virginia coaching staff implored the players not to defer to default options. Don’t reach for a steal if it will take you out of position. Don’t stand and watch when first-team all-ACC forward Mike Scott has the ball in the post.
Don’t give in to your instincts. Trust the system.
“I think we all got a little too excited about the game and focused so much on what we had to do individually that we kind of fractured a little bit,” sophomore forward Akil Mitchell said. “Coach Bennett really brought us back together.”
After the NCAA tournament pairings were announced Sunday night, the focus shifted to Florida. Whereas Virginia offers a methodical approach that tries to stifle opponents on defense and eat up the shot clock on offense, the Gators work to create an up-tempo game with persistent full-court pressure and fast-break offense.
Mitchell said the keys to the game for the Cavaliers will be getting back swiftly in transition defense, defending Florida’s ball screens and handling the Gators’ pressure defense. Virginia, which struggled against the press against Florida State and Maryland this season, has prepared four schemes to attack Florida’s high-pressure approach.
“We expect them to press a whole lot,” junior guard Jontel Evans said. “That’s the type of team they are.”
Given the type of team Virginia is, expect the final margin of Friday’s score to be slim. Of the 17 games the Cavaliers played against ACC opponents this season, 11 were decided by four points or less. Virginia, which allows fewer points per game than all but one team in the nation, went 5-6 in those contests.
“We’re talking about little areas that we’re trying to squeeze to get us a few possessions here or there,” Bennett said. “We just were a little off [against N.C. State]. But the few letdowns we had early, we had to work to get back into it, and then we were stronger as the game progressed. But if you want to advance [in the postseason], it’s got to be more of a complete game.”