By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the men’s practice gym at John Paul Jones Arena, the mood changed last week. First-year coach Tony Bennett barked more and smiled less.
He’s a good-natured guy, but his basketball team’s defensive lapses are wearing on him.
If not for breakdowns at that end against Stanford and Penn State, UVa might well be 5-1. Instead, the Cavaliers are 4-3 heading into their Monday night game at Auburn (4-4). And so Bennett keeps preaching the same sermon: Thou must defend.
“It’s a never-ending battle,” Bennett said Sunday afternoon. “It’s just something you’ve got to stay after, and you keep working at it.
“You never solve that. No matter how good your defense is or not, you just approach it every day and you work at it and you try to play the heck out of it. It’s more about action than talking about it, and trying to make our guys, all of us, accountable and as tough-minded as we can be. Again, there’s nothing pretty about trying to become hard to score against.”
Opponents are shooting 43.2 percent from the floor against the Wahoos this season. From beyond the 3-point arc, they’ve hit 39.4 percent of their attempts.
Bennett would like to see those averages come down, but that’s not his only concern. His top rebounder and second-leading scorer — UVa’s only legitimate inside threat — sprained an ankle Saturday morning and is questionable for Monday night.
Against Penn State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge last week, Mike Scott went 6 for 6 from the floor in the first half, and the 6-8 junior finished with 17 points and 11 boards. If Scott (13.1 ppg, 9.3 rpg) isn’t available against Auburn, Bennett will have to improvise.
Senior forward Jamil Tucker, who has yet to play this season, didn’t make the trip to Auburn. The Cavaliers’ other frontcourt options are 6-9 senior Jerome Meyinsse, 6-9 junior Will Sherrill, 7-0 sophomore Assane Sene and 6-8 freshman Tristan Spurlock, who has appeared in only four games.
“Someone else has to step up, and we’ve got to be ready,” Bennett said. “Obviously, what Mike did in the first half against Penn State was impressive. He gives you a threat down low, so we just gotta try to have everybody rally and see where we’re at.”
Pairing one post player with four perimeter players might be a good option against Auburn, which often uses a similar lineup. The Tigers, who beat the Cavaliers 58-46 at JPJ last season, average 24.8 3-point attempts per game.
UVa, by comparison, averages 15.3.
“They really try to get to the lane and draw your defense and get an advantage and then kick it out for 3s,” Bennett said. “They’re a team that when they’re shooting it well, they’re tough to beat. And the times that they’ve labored is when either teams have gotten hot against them or [the Tigers] have not shot it well from that 3-point line.
“You’ve got to try to make them earn it and not give them the uncontested shot. That’s the whole key.”
Once again, then, the Wahoos’ ability to defend may determine whether they win or lose. In practice last week, players ran through defensive drills time and again, and then some more. The goal is to build habits that will carry UVa through the season.
“I wish I had a magic formula,” Bennett said. “I wish there was a quicker way to do it, but there’s not. You just keep working and keep going at it in practice the way we are and trying to improve.”
This is Virginia’s last game before final exams. UVa returns to the court Dec. 19 against UNC Wilmington in Charlottesville.