By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The weather here Monday afternoon is cool and rainy, another reminder to UVa men’s basketball players that they’re not in Mexico anymore.
After flying to Cancun for two games last week, the Cavaliers are back home. The end of the fall semester looms, but the Wahoos (4-2) have two more games before final exams begin.
The first comes Monday night at John Paul Jones Arena against Penn State (4-2) in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. ESPN2 will televise the 7 o’clock game.
Virginia is coming off two uneven defensive performances in the Mexican portion of the Cancun Challenge.
In its first game at the Moon Palace Resort, UVa held Stanford to 38.9 percent shooting from the floor, but that figure is deceiving. Late in the game, the Cardinal capitalized on a series of defensive lapses by UVa and rallied to win 57-52.
The next night, Virginia erased a 10-point second-half deficit and pulled away for a 76-55 win over Cleveland State. But the Vikings shot 65.2 percent from the floor in the first half and 55.3 percent for the game.
First-year coach Tony Bennett expects more from his team at that end.
Rugged defense, Bennett said, is “part of an identity we’re trying to establish, to have some genuine pride in it.
“I just keep preaching to the guys, ‘Make them earn everything. If they can hit tough shots, we can live with that. But let’s not give them the ones where we just somehow break down and they’re laying it in.'”
That’s what happened late against Stanford, much to Bennett’s chagrin.
“When it gets to that time in the game when you absolutely need to rally the troops and get a stop, we just have to be tougher-minded and not have breakdowns,” he said. “We’re going to have breakdowns, but we’ve got to shrink the number we’re having.”
Bennett benched junior guard Mustapha Farrakhan, who’d started the first four games, for the opening half against Stanford. (“Coach’s decision,” Bennett called it.) Jeff Jones replaced Farrakhan and scored a team-high 17 points in 34 minutes.
Against Cleveland State, however, Jones played only five minutes. Farrakhan matched up better defensively against the Vikings’ backcourt, in Bennett’s opinion, and ended up playing 33 minutes.
Jones “had a few breakdowns defensively [in Cancun],” Bennett said, “but he certainly is going to be an important part of this, and I think that whether he starts or comes off the bench, my challenge to Jeff is to just try and stay locked in and not let that affect his confidence.
“As a coach, I’ve always said the hardest thing is to see your kids work hard in practice and then not to be able to reward them [with playing] time … But that’s the reality of what we do.”
Assane Sene was another UVa player who watched most of the Cleveland State game. On a night when Farrakhan, Sammy Zeglinski, Sylven Landesberg and Mike Scott played at least 33 minutes apiece, another Cavalier, Will Sherrill, logged a career-high 24.
Sene played only six.
‘I think he’s still finding himself a little bit, finding his legs,” Bennett said.
Sherrill’s magnificent effort against Cleveland State was another reason Sene played so little. A 6-9 walk-on from New York City, Sherrill totaled 18 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists and 1 steal — all career highs.
“I guess I’ve gone really to an eight- or nine-man rotation right now,” Bennett said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s locked in there.”
Sherrill, for example, played only nine minutes against Stanford. Given the myriad ways in which Sherrill was contributing against Cleveland State, however, Bennett saw no reason to take him out.
He played Sherrill alongside Farrakhan, Zeglinski, Landesberg and Scott and “just rode them in the second half,” Bennett said, “because I thought we had something going.”
Sene, a 7-0 sophomore, was suspended for UVa’s first three games, and he sprained an ankle during that period. He sparkled in his 2009-10 debut — a Nov. 21 rout of Oral Roberts — but looked out of sync in Cancun.
“He didn’t finish a couple shots and was out of place on some defensive assignments,” Bennett said. “Some of the other guys were doing the job. Again, that goes into the rotation. It could be Assane playing heavy minutes and someone else not as many.
“I think it’s pretty fluid with our guys, but I want Assane to keep coming, because defensively, he’s real active. That’s what I like about Assane. He’s a presence defensively. And he made a nice post move against Stanford. He just had some trouble finishing against Cleveland State.
“My hope is that as he gets more comfortable and his ankle continues to feel better, that we’ll be able to see him get more established in that rotation.”
Penn State lost two starters from the team won the NIT last season, but Talor Battle ranks among the best guards UVa will face this season. The 6-0 junior from Albany, N.Y., averages 18.2 points and 6.3 rebounds.
“As with any team we play, we’re never in a spot where we can say, ‘We can just coast in this one,'” Bennett said. “We have to be so ready to play, to handle their guard, to handle their size and to rebound, and hopefully being back home we’ll play at a high level.
“I just want to keep taking steps towards better basketball. As I’ve said, there’s stretches of it, but I don’t know if we’ve put a complete game together, and playing against a Big Ten opponent we’ll certainly need to do that.”