By Jeff White (email@example.com)
MIAMI — Tony Bennett stopped practice for a moment Monday morning at the University of Miami’s BankUnited Center, a teacher intent on getting his point across to his students.
“If you will work,” Bennett told his players, and not for the first time this season, “you will be in games.”
Effort alone, of course, isn’t enough. There must be execution, and the UVa men’s basketball team has struggled in that area, too, in recent games.
“Whether that’s being discouraged or being tired or lack of practice time, it could be any of those things combined,” Bennett said Monday afternoon. “But you just have to overcome that.”
UVa (5-7, 14-11) meets ACC foe Miami (3-9, 17-9) at 7 p.m. Tuesday. It will be the fifth game in 11 days for the Wahoos, a demanding stretch that’s taken a toll on Bennett’s team.
“There hasn’t been as much practice time,” Bennett said, “so you’re sort of adjusting on the fly.”
After losing at Clemson on Saturday, however, the ‘Hoos flew to Miami that night instead of back to Charlottesville. By arriving early, UVa has had ample time to prepare for the Hurricanes.
“We’ve tried to make the most of it,” Bennett said, “and we’ve had two spirited, business-like practices, trying to accomplish some things that have been lacking — maybe because of lack of practice time with this stretch of games, maybe because as the season’s worn on, we’ve slid a little bit off of what we need to do.”
Virginia has lost five straight since beating N.C. State on Feb. 3, and its past three games haven’t been close. Maryland routed UVa by 19 points, as did Florida State. Clemson won by 23. All three shot at least 50 percent from the floor against the Cavaliers, whose fortunes have changed dramatically in less than three weeks.
“This league will do that to you,” Miami coach Frank Haith said Monday.
As the Cavaliers’ defense has declined, so has their offense. Since their win over the Wolfpack at John Paul Jones Arena, the Cavs have not shot better than 37.9 percent in a game.
“I don’t know if two days can get it back,” Bennett said, “but we’ve tried to address both [areas]. The kids have practiced hard. We are who we are, so you still see some of our warts, but the last two days there was more focus and purpose than we’ve been able to have, just because of lack of practice time.”
Much has changed since these teams met Jan. 16 at JPJ. UVa entered that game with six straight wins and, in front of a noisy crowd, convincingly extended its streak to seven.
Led by sophomore Sylven Landesberg (18 points), the ‘Hoos shot 51.8 percent from the floor and pounded the ‘Canes 75-57. Even more impressive was UVa’s defense, which limited Miami to 31.5-percent accuracy.
“We took some quick shots, some ill-advised shots,” Haith said.
The ‘Canes have played better since that loss, but, like the ‘Hoos, they’re desperate for a victory. Miami has dropped four of its past five games and eight of 10. At home, however, the Hurricanes are 11-2, so another Virginia blowout is unlikely Tuesday.
A one-point victory would delight the Cavaliers, who host fifth-ranked Duke (11-2, 23-4) on Sunday night.
“I’m kind of looking at this game as a game to get back on the right track,” Landesberg said. “It’s not fun to lose. I think if we just get that one win, we can get right back to where we were.”
Landesberg, who attempted a team-high 186 foul shots in 2008-09, has shot only five free throws in Virginia’s past four games — none in the past two.
Opponents are packing the lane to stop the all-ACC candidate’s trademark drives, Bennett said, and there aren’t nearly “as many alleys to get to the basket.”
Few things would boost the confidence of Landesberg and his teammates more than some easy baskets, the kind that often come in transition after an opponent’s miss. But UVa’s recent defensive problems have meant such baskets “have gone by the wayside,” Bennett said, “because 50 percent of the time we’re taking the ball out of the net [after an opponent’s field goal].”
The solution? Better defense.
“At practice I said to the team, ‘This end is our chance,’ because when you’re struggling to put the ball in the basket, you won’t have a chance, you won’t even be in the game, if your defense isn’t really good,” Bennett said. “And the last three games our defense has been poor.”
When his team has been effective, Bennett said, “we’ve gotten stops and we’ve generated some offense out of our defense, whether it’s a missed shot or a turnover, and we’ve gotten a few transition buckets to just get on the board and get some points that way.”
Against Clemson, Bennett started Jontel Evans at point guard, Sammy Zeglinski at shooting guard, Landesberg at small forward, Mike Scott at power forward and Assane Sene at center.
Senior Calvin Baker practiced well Monday and could replace Evans in the first five Tuesday night, and senior Jerome Meyinsse may reclaim his starting job at center.
No matter their lineup, the Cavaliers won’t have to contend with an atmosphere as hostile as what they encountered at Cassell Coliseum or Comcast Center or Littlejohn Coliseum.
The BankUnited Center, Miami’s on-campus arena, seats 7,200. Rarely is it full. The ‘Canes are averaging 4,625 fans at home this season.
“We’re getting there,” Haith said. “We’re not where a lot of teams are in our league. But we’ve made some progress over the years, and it’s only going to be better and better.”