By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At 4:57, the locker room door burst open Friday afternoon, and out ran Tony Bennett’s players into the practice gym at John Paul Jones Arena.
They gathered at midcourt, bouncing up and down as they awaited instructions on one of the most anticipated days on the college basketball calendar.
The Cavaliers had been training a few hours each week, in small groups and, more recently, as a team, for most of the semester. But this was different. This was UVa’s first official practice under its new coach.
“There will be a lot of defense today, I promise you that,” Bennett told a group of observers that included his boss, athletics director Craig Littlepage.
After strength-and-conditioning coach Mike Curtis put the team through a series of stretching exercises, assistants Ritchie McKay, Ron Sanchez and Jason Williford took over with the players, as Bennett looked on.
“We’ll give them a false sense of security,” he said with a smile. “Let them have the ball for about 15 minutes, and then it’s all defense.”
Around 5:30 p.m., Bennett finally addressed his players.
“That’s pre-practice,” he told them. “Now practice starts. Now we build it.”
His earlier comment notwithstanding, Bennett did not have his managers collect the balls and lock them away. Plenty of shots went up in a practice that lasted about 2 hours and 45 minutes, and many went in, with junior guard Jeff Jones proving to be particularly accurate.
Still, stifling defense was the hallmark of Bennett’s teams at Washington State, where he went 69-33 in three seasons as head coach before replacing Dave Leitao at UVa. And Bennett won’t be happy until his teams at Virginia play defense with similar fervor.
“Come on now,” he yelled Friday, “let’s get some stops!”
The players had been split into three teams of four, and Bennett was watching a drill in which each group was supposed to go three straight defensive possessions without allowing a basket.
“We haven’t even gotten to two,” Bennett said in exasperation at one point.
Finally, the orange-clad quartet of Sylen Landesberg, Sammy Zeglinski, Jerome Meyinsse and Will Sherrill reached the objective, and Bennett clapped in approval. Later, after Mike Scott aggressively gathered in a missed shot, Bennett slapped hands with the 6-8 junior and shouted, “That’s how you rebound!”
Practice concluded with a four-minute rebounding drill during which the players’ fatigue showed. It was approaching 8 o’clock, and they were due back at the JPJ to lift weights at 10 a.m. Saturday, with practices to follow at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.
“It’s going to be a quick turnaround,” Zeglinski said, “so we’ve got to get our sleep and come back refreshed tomorrow.”
The first practice is a grind, “because it’s three hours long, and it’s a long day,” Zeglinski said. “There’s going to be mistakes made throughout the practice, but we just got to be able to stay focused the whole time and pick each other up when we’re struggling.”
Zeglinski is a redshirt sophomore, and so this was the third time he’d experienced a first practice at UVa.
“It was definitely different,” Zeglinski said when asked to compare Bennett’s approach to that of Leitao. “It wasn’t as much focused on conditioning and really hitting your legs hard. It was more focused on principles and defense and just trying to ingrain them into our team as early as we can.
“We’ve been working on it all spring as well, and all through the preseason. For the first day, I thought we had a pretty good day.”
For his part, Bennett said he liked his players’ spirit and work ethic.
“I think they faded a little bit at the end, because we ground it out pretty hard and long,” he said.
“I’ll be interested to see how they’ll respond. If they would keep that kind of energy through the course of — let’s just go a week at a time — I would be very pleased with that. We’re still teaching. There’s still some things we got to iron out, of course, but I was most pleased with their effort.”
Virginia went 10-18 last season. For the Wahoos to improve significantly, they’ll need to play hard, play smart and stick together, Bennett said.
“Is it going to be perfect? No,” he said. “But will there be some decent execution, will there be some unity on the floor, not only when it’s going good, but when we’re going through some rough times? That’s big.”
When it comes to X’s and O’s, Bennett has little in common with his predecessor at UVa. But Bennett noted that “there are so many different ways to be successful and be effective” in college hoops.
“I’m sure there’s certain different terminology,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it’s better, just different … But I still maintain this, regardless of your system: Basketball is basketball. Good shot selection, good ability to take care of the basketball and be sound with it. Defensively, to be tough to score against. To not get out of position. To play together. Those are the things, whether we were all zone, whether we were Princeton, whether we pressing full-court, it’s all about those things.”
Time was, the first practice was the first time a coach got to work with his entire team in the fall. That’s no longer the case, thanks to some NCAA policy changes, but Friday was still special for the UVa players.
“Definitely,” Zeglinski said. “Everybody’s excited, because it means the season’s here and we get a chance to redeem ourselves from last year, and we get to prove a lot of people wrong that don’t think that we’re any good. We got a new coaching staff, and they’re going to push us every day, and we’re really excited to get better.