By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa’s first-year coach ranks among the greatest outside shooters ever to play college basketball, and it’s not unusual to see Tony Bennett on the court after practice, burying 3-pointer after 3-pointer with his textbook left-handed stroke.
When game time comes and Virginia’s players are the ones shooting, however, balls clang off the rim much more often than they fall through the net.
Every men’s team in the ACC has played at least 13 conference games, so the sample size is large enough to be telling. And the numbers don’t flatter the Wahoos (5-8, 14-12) as they head into their Sunday night game with fifth-ranked Duke (11-2, 24-4) at John Paul Jones Arena.
In conference play, UVa ranks 11th among ACC teams in field-goal percentage. At 39.8 percent, Virginia barely leads N.C. State (39.5).
The last time the Cavaliers made more than 38 percent of their field-goal attempts?
Their Feb. 3 win over N.C. State.
The last time the ‘Hoos shot better than 41 percent from the floor?
Their Jan. 31 rout of North Carolina.
Virginia has lost six straight since beating the Wolfpack. The Cavaliers’ most recent game was a 74-62 loss at Miami. Virginia shot a respectable 41.8 percent in the first half but plummeted to 30.3 percent after intermission.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” said sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski, who was 2 for 10 against the Hurricanes.
For the game, sophomore swingman Sylven Landesberg was 8 for 14, and junior guard Jeff Jones was 4 for 8. The other Cavaliers were a combined 8 for 35 from the floor, and not because the ‘Canes had them blanketed.
“Some of those good looks we got …” Bennett said afterward, his voice trailing off. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
As a point guard at Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he played for his father, Bennett made 49.7 percent of his career 3-pointers. That’s still an NCAA record.
A season ago, the ‘Hoos were the least-accurate ACC team in conference games, shooting 41.1 percent from the floor and 32 percent from 3-point range. Bennett inherited most of the players from that team, and marksmanship remains an issue.
“I always try to look as a coach at the quality of shots we’re getting,” Bennett said, and his team usually gets plenty of open shots.
“We’re trying to shoot a little harder and a little more in practice now, keep working on getting good shots, but I guess it’s a stretch you go through,” Bennett said.
From the line, the Cavaliers have no such problems. In conference play, they’ve made 76.3 percent of their free throws, best in the ACC.
From the floor, only senior center Jerome Meyinsse (52 percent) has made at least half of his field-goal attempts in conference games, though accuracy generally hasn’t been a huge problem for Jones (46.2), junior forward Mike Scott (45.8) and Landesberg (44.4).
Well below the 40-percent mark, however, are the other players who have been in UVa’s rotation: junior guard Mustapha Farrakhan (37.3), senior guard Calvin Baker (30.6), Zeglinski (30.4), freshman guard Jontel Evans (26.7), junior forward Will Sherrill (26.2) and sophomore center Assane Sene (20).
At the other end, ACC opponents are shooting a torrid 44.9 percent against UVa, and that’s making a bad situation worse.
“We feel better about ourselves when we’re getting stops and we’re locking people up,” Zeglinski said, “and when we’re not getting stops at the defensive end, I think it relates to the offense.
“We haven’t been able to get out in transition as much, because we haven’t been getting stops. I think as long as we pick it up on the defensive end, our shots will start falling.”
Bennett said: “I think there’s a confidence factor when you’re getting stops, and I think sometimes when you’re not getting stops and they’re scoring easy, you feel like, ‘We gotta score now or we’re in trouble, we can’t keep up with this deal,’ and you might press a little bit. So certainly I could see that, and our defense before had held us in there. And when that’s not been the case” recently, UVa’s shooting percentages have fallen.
Evans, who’s 12 for 38 from inside the arc in ACC games, said he puts up extra shots in practice whenever he can.
“It’s been kind of busy with all these road games,” Evans said, “but that’s something Coach Bennett told me we were going to work on a lot in the offseason, my shot.”
Quality shots may be difficult to come by Sunday night. The Blue Devils, who have allowed a league-low average of 62.5 points in ACC games, are famed for their ability to deny passes on the perimeter and for the pressure they put on the ball.
“Obviously they’re so well-coached, that goes without saying,” Bennett said. “Defensively, their pressure is extreme. They really can take away. They make every pass a challenge. You have to be complete. You have to be able to, certainly, bounce the ball and drive it and make the next play. Then they load up the lane, and they’re so good at taking charges with help defense.”
On a teleconference Friday night, Bennett was asked about his team’s slide. Virginia won its first three ACC games but has since dropped to eighth place in the league standings.
“We got off to a good start, and I was hoping, man, maybe we can bypass or shortcut this part of the process, when you’re trying to build up a program and rebuild and going through the painful times,” Bennett said. “And we’re certainly going through it now. It’s a challenge. You work like crazy when it’s not going well to try and figure out ways to better it.
“There’s not a quick fix. There’s not an easy answer. There were some things that were better in the Miami game, but now we go into this Duke game where the competition steps up.
“It’s a great challenge, but I have a big-picture view, I really do. I just want to get the most out of this team and fight for, obviously, the kids themselves, because I see that look in their eyes when it’s not going well. That’s a hard one.”