By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett has a request for the engineering school at UVa. The Cavaliers’ first-year basketball coach joked Friday night about wanting a device with which he could jolt his perimeter players to remind them to sprint back on defense.
“I wish I had an electric prodder or something,” Bennett said with a smile at John Paul Jones Arena. “A shot goes up and you’re a perimeter guy and — bzzzz — you’ve got to go. It almost has to be like that to play against these teams we’re playing against.”
Bennett saw several things that disappointed him Thursday night at JPJ, where UVa squandered a 10-point lead in the final three minutes of regulation and lost 76-71 in overtime to arch-rival Virginia Tech.
Foremost among them: his team’s poor transition defense.
“There’s a couple staples to our defense that I’ve talked about from probably the first meeting I had with these players back in April,” Bennett said.
“We talked about transition defense. As we say, the defense never rests. When we were back and set [against the Hokies], we were pretty good. But it gets harder as the game wears on.”
When UVa fails to get back on defense, Bennett said, it’s “like a dam breaking, and that’s what happened [Thursday night], the way they scored at the end of the first half and the end of regulation, the transition baskets they hit. And we just have to keep working on it.”
Transition defense was the focus on the Wahoos’ practice Friday. They hit the main court at JPJ about 19 hours after the end of their crushing loss to Virginia Tech, and the fast breaks began, one after the other. And when Bennett saw a player not hustling back on defense, practice stopped for a loud lesson.
“I don’t know any other way,” said Bennett, whose teams at Washington State were known for their defensive soundness. “We could try hypnotizing them and talking about [transition defense], but there’s no other way but practice.”
Especially when Virginia’s next opponent is defending NCAA champion North Carolina, whose coach, Roy Williams, wants his team to push the ball at every opportunity. UNC (2-3, 13-7) and UVa (3-2, 12-6) are scheduled to meet Sunday at 7:45 p.m. in snowy Chapel Hill.
The Wahoos haven’t beaten UNC at the Dean Dome since 2001-02. From last season’s team, the Tar Heels lost Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, but Williams still has such weapons as Ed Davis, Deon Thompson and Will Graves.
“They’re big on the glass, they run, and they’re hitting their stride, so it’ll be a test,” Bennett said.
Before his players returned to the court Friday, Bennett addressed them.
“I told them it’s OK to feel discouraged and down to an extent,” he said later, “but most teams would take that onto the court and let it affect them. I just said, ‘Let’s not be like most teams.’
“That was my message: ‘Let’s not be like most teams. Let’s be different. Let’s be competitive. Let’s learn from it, what we saw, and let’s try and apply it. And let’s start with a film session, let’s do it on the practice floor, let’s do it tomorrow in the practice [in Chapel Hill], and let’s try to compete, because you’re walking in a situation where you’re going to have to be ready, or you could be in trouble.'”
In 2007-08, Bennett’s second season as head coach at Washington State, his team met UNC in the NCAA tournament’s third round. The Cougars lost 68-47 in Charlotte, N.C., in part because they failed to slow then-Carolina point guard Ty Lawson in transition.
“That’s all we talked about and preached in the week leading up to the Sweet 16,” Bennett recalled. “It’s hard to emulate in practice, but we do our best. It’s something that you gotta pay the price on daily.”
In Bennett’s system, the power forward (also known as the 4) and the center (the 5) are expected to compete for offensive rebounds on every possession. Bennett wants his point guard (the 1) and his shooting guard (the 2) and, in most cases, his small forward (the 3) to race back on defense when a shot goes up.
“It depends who we’re playing,” Bennett said. “Sometimes we have the 3 [crashing the boards], so we’ll have three. But against certain teams, we try to get for sure three back. And I mean when the shot goes up and it’s airborne, it’s gotta be boom! It’s gotta be instinctual.”
Which is where practice reps come in.
Transition defense is “not second nature to anybody,” Bennett said. “Your first instinct when the shot goes up is, ‘I’m going to stand and watch it.’
“It’s not natural for anybody to be a great player [in transition defense]. We always say it’s uphill on transition defense and downhill on transition offense. And the first three steps are everything. It’s not trot, trot, sprint and find your way. It’s sprint, sprint, sprint and then locate and go.”
This will be the only regular-season meeting between UVa and UNC in 2009-10. The Heels have won six straight in a series they lead 124-48.