By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CANCUN, Mexico — The pool, the beach, the food, the weather, they’re all pleasant diversions. But Tony Bennett’s team came here to play basketball.
About 50 hours after landing in this sun-splashed country, UVa will finally take the court. Virginia (3-1) meets Stanford (2-2) on Tuesday night (7 o’clock Eastern) in the Cancun Challenge.
“I can’t wait to play,” sophomore point guard Sammy Zeglinski said Monday morning at the team breakfast. “I wish we could have played as soon as we got down here, really. It’s going to be a lot of fun to get out there.”
This event started last week at several sites in the United States, including John Paul Jones Arena. In Mexico, it’s being held in a converted ballroom a floor up from the lobby of the palatial Moon Palace Resort, where Virginia and the other seven teams are staying, eating, practicing and relaxing.
Outside the entrance to the “gym” is a well-stocked bar for spectators, most of whom are wearing the blue of the Kentucky Wildcats. Underneath the temporary stands — and the court — lies plush carpet. Over the court, chandeliers hang near the ceiling.
“Isn’t this crazy?” Ron Sanchez said to fellow UVa assistant coach Jason Williford during practice Monday afternoon.
It’s easy to get distracted in such an atmosphere, and the Cavaliers’ first-year coach won’t know until Tuesday night if his players’ minds are on hoops.
“Room service is free, so you worry about that,” Bennett said with a smile Tuesday morning. “You wonder what they’re ordering in the middle of the night, how many chicken quesadillas and cheeseburgers are going down the palate.”
Still, Bennett said, these “tournaments are a good thing. I told our guys last night, ‘It is a privilege to come to Cancun and experience this and then to have this competition to play against. It’s a privilege to play at the University of Virginia, because it affords you this opportunity.’
“So you want to make the most of it. Again, from a basketball standpoint, it’s an opportunity to play against good competition and just continue on this road of trying to reach our full potential and learn through it. And then obviously the surroundings are beautiful, so you take that in.”
The team arrived in Cancun on Sunday afternoon, and Bennett gave his players the rest of the day off. The Wahoos practiced Monday, and Bennett was less than pleased by what he saw.
“I didn’t think our approach to practice was where it needed to be,” he said. “Was it the room service? Was is the surroundings and not being focused?”
He’s not sure. He knows this, though: Stanford is a dangerous opponent, whether his players believe so or not.
Bennett, of course, coached at Washington State before coming to UVa last spring, and he’s familiar with the Cardinal’s personnel. He worries in particular about two of Johnny Dawkins’ starters: senior swingman Landry Fields (22.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and sophomore guard Jeremy Green (14.8 ppg, 5 rpg).
Stanford is “still trying to find itself, probably like most teams and definitely like us. But they got a couple of guys who really know how to play,” Bennett said.
The teams have one common opponent so far this season: Oral Roberts. The Cardinal fell at home to the Golden Eagles, 83-81. The ‘Hoos drilled ORU 76-55 in Charlottesville.
Bennett doesn’t want his players to read too much into those outcomes. “You have to be locked in to play,” he said. “You just look at the college basketball landscape and the upsets. The parity is unbelievable.”
With UVa’s first game looming, Bennett discussed what he hopes his team will accomplish in Cancun.
“I want to see how we’ll respond after a couple of OK performances at home,” he said. “Now we go to a neutral site where there’s good competition. I just hope we’ll keep taking steps in the right direction and continue to find out, again, where we’re strong and where we need to improve.
“We have to be so focused on the quality: the quality of our practices, the quality of our approach and how we play. And in the end, wins and losses will take care of themselves. That’s what I try to focus on, even through wins and losses with this group.”
The third of the four games on Tuesday’s schedule matches Kentucky and Cleveland State. The victor will face the UVa-Stanford winner Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. Eastern.
“Really we just want to put ourselves on the map, kind of make a name for ourselves,” Zeglinski said. “This is a good opportunity for us to get some exposure. We just want to play well and compete and show everybody that Virginia basketball is back.”
Whatever happens in Cancun, Bennett figures to have a better read on his team by the time the ‘Hoos fly home on Thanksgiving.
“This will reveal,” he said. “That’s why you’re here, to play some teams in a different kind of setting with unique challenges and opportunities.”
NOTE: CBS College Sports is televising the UVa-Stanford game. Live stats, however, may not be available on the Internet. Check my blog and our Twitter page for updates during the game.