By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After seeing his team’s uneven performances in its two scrimmages, UVa’s new men’s basketball coach has a long list of problems to address as the season-opener approaches.
“It’s part of the growing pains,” Tony Bennett said Monday in his office at John Paul Jones Arena.
Virginia scrimmaged Marquette on Nov. 1 at University Hall and St. John’s a week later at the JPJ. Under NCAA rules, specific information about scrimmages may not be disclosed publicly, but Bennett was able to talk in general terms about the Cavaliers’ progress — or lack thereof.
“The value of those scrimmages, against the teams we played, is that it really reveals and exposes the areas that you’re not sound in,” Bennett said. “And I thought both teams we played in stretches really exposed areas that have to improve for us to be in games. If those areas don’t step up, it’ll be very difficult.”
The Wahoos went 10-18 in 2008-09, their fourth and final season under Dave Leitao. One of those 10 victories came at the expense of Longwood, which fell 90-61 at the JPJ last December. The Lancers went on to finish 17-14, and they’ll be the first opponent Bennett faces in an official game as the Cavaliers’ coach.
The teams meet at 7 p.m. Friday.
Virginia could have played two exhibitions before the opener, or one exhibition and one scrimmage, but Bennett opted for two scrimmages. Exhibitions are usually against inferior competition, and he thought his players would benefit more — and the coaching staff would learn more about the team — from facing Division I opponents.
“I think those scrimmages are terrific for getting a better read on your team,” Bennett said. “Competition brings those things out, the goods and the bads.
“You can’t hide. Sometimes if you play games where you win by 50, you don’t really know what holds up against better competition and what doesn’t. And I think that when you see some of the good things happen, you say, ‘OK, we gotta build on these things. We gotta build on the positives.’ You see certain players had some success.”
Asked what he liked in the scrimmages, Bennett paused for several seconds before answering.
“After this last scrimmage, it’s hard. I didn’t see as many positives,” he said. “Against Marquette, there were a few positives.”
Against Marquette, Virginia’s frontcourt players included Mike Scott, the team’s top rebounder last season. Scott, a 6-8 junior, missed the St. John’s scrimmage with a foot injury, so “we had to play with different guys in there and figure out ways to do it, and I saw them not lay down and die,” Bennett said. “I saw them fight through adversity and make a comeback.
“I thought there were stretches of good basketball. Not near enough, but I saw some stretches of what we could become, and I thought that was positive, defensively and offensively. But I thought the defense took a step back in this last scrimmage.”
The ‘Hoos also were without 7-0 sophomore Assane Sene against St. John’s. Sene, who started 16 games last season, was recently suspended for what Bennett, who didn’t elaborate, called conduct detrimental to the team.
Sene sat out the second scrimmage and will meet the first three games of the season. After opening with Longwood, UVa plays at South Florida on Nov. 16 and then hosts Rider three nights later.
“Our staff is about establishing this program to be about the right things for the long haul. Period,” Bennett said. “Those who want to be part of it and join in and move forward, let’s do this together.”
Virginia didn’t have a lot of frontcourt depth to begin with. Sene’s suspension, coupled with Scott’s injury, left Bennett with only three post players: 6-9 seniors Jamil Tucker and Jerome Meyinsse and 6-9 junior Will Sherrill, a walk-on.
“Not good timing,” Bennett said of Sene’s lapse. “Sometimes decisions affect your team in more ways than you know.”
With Sene and Scott out, Bennett experimented at times with a lineup that included four guards. One of those perimeter players, 6-4 junior Jeff Jones, has impressed throughout the preseason. His teammates haven’t been as consistent, but “all of them at times have had real good moments,” Bennett said.
“We just have to establish some things that are going to be foundational.”
And that, Bennett has emphasized since leaving Washington State for UVa last spring, will take time. The Virginia team that closes the coming season, he hopes, will be better than the one that debuts Friday night.
“If you have the right kind of young men in the program, they will improve,” Bennett said. “They’ll get better, if they’ve bought in.
“But it can also go the other way, too, if it’s not about the program and helping the team win. If it’s about individuals, if it’s about stats, if it’s about the wrong things, it won’t go that way. But if guys, even if they’re not on the same talent level as some of their opponents, if they’ve really sold out on trying to make the team better and bought in to the things that matter, then you’ll see improvement as the season wears on.”