By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Nine days after flying out of Dulles International Airport, the UVa men’s basketball team is scheduled to land there Friday afternoon and then bus back to John Paul Jones Arena.

The Cavaliers were 2-0 when they headed west on Nov. 17, having beaten William and Mary and USC Upstate at JPJ. They’re now 3-3. Yet second-year coach Tony Bennett remains upbeat — and realistic.

Of the 10 scholarship players who have seen time for Bennett this season, five are freshmen, and the Wahoos’ starting point guard, Jontel Evans, is a sophomore.

Stumbles are not uncommon for an inexperienced team, especially one playing away from home against rugged competition.

“I think we improved through this tournament, I really do,” Bennett said Thursday by phone from Hawaii, where the ‘Hoos went 1-2 and finished sixth in the eight-team Maui Invitational.

Before leaving the mainland last Friday, Virginia opened its road trip with a game at Stanford. The Cardinal led by only two with 14 minutes left but dominated thereafter in what became a resounding 81-60 victory.

“We faltered down the stretch,” Bennett said. “We got weaker, they got stronger.”

Then came three games in Maui, the first of which was an epic disaster Monday. As Washington State’s head coach, Bennett had gone 5-2 against Washington. In his first meeting against the Huskies as Virginia’s head man, Bennett saw his team get embarrassed.

No. 13 Washington romped 106-63, after which Bennett challenged his players.

“I just said, ‘Who are we? Who are we as a team? How do we have to play to have a chance?’ ” Bennett recalled Thursday. “And then they bounced back, and that’s tough to do in a short turnaround.”

About 16 hours after that one-sided loss to Washington, the ‘Hoos hammered Oklahoma 74-56. That set up a date with Wichita State, a Missouri Valley Conference power. For the second straight game, Virginia bolted to a huge lead, but this one didn’t last.

By halftime Wednesday, the ‘Hoos trailed 35-31. Wichita State led by only one with 11:40 to play, but it wore down Virginia and pulled away for a 70-58 victory. The Shockers are a deep, experienced team that nearly knocked off eventual champion Connecticut in the Maui Invitational’s first round, and UVa’s fast start didn’t faze them.

“Sometimes when you jump out to those huge leads, you know there’s going to be a run,” Bennett said Wednesday. “You know you’re going to get punched back in the mouth, and we’ve got to be able to stand in there and not falter like that.”

In UVa’s four games away from JPJ this season, its opponents have shot 50.6 from the floor. They’ve been even more accurate from long range, hitting a staggering 53.7 percent of their 3-point attempts.

For a defensive-minded coach such as Bennett, those numbers are unacceptable, and the breakdowns will be addressed when the team returns to the practice court, perhaps as early as Friday evening. Still, Bennett saw several things he liked on the road trip, including the play of freshmen Joe Harris and K.T. Harrell.

Harris, a 6-6 swingman, shot 19 for 34 from the floor and averaged 12 points in the four games. Harrell, a 6-4 shooting guard, scored 14 points against Washington and 10 versus Wichita State.

“I thought Joe established himself — Joe’s going to be good — and I think K.T. had a couple games where he showed some good things,” Bennett said. “So that’s at least a start there.”

Evans struggled against Washington — as did virtually all the Cavaliers except Harris and Harrell — but otherwise acquitted himself well on the trip. He averaged 7.3 points and 4.8 assists in the four games.

“I thought Jontel did some good things,” Bennett said. “I challenged him to keep becoming sounder and defensively, to know when you’ve got to go for steals and know when to be steady and not gamble. Because he’s our one guy who can go get you a steal and do some things, and he just has to do it when the time is appropriate, and keep working on finishing and making good decisions.”

Mike Scott, a 6-8 senior, had 27 points and 15 rebounds against Oklahoma and on the trip averaged 15.5 points and 8.8 rebounds, both team highs. He also had nearly twice as many assists (7) as turnovers (4).

Equally as impressive, Bennett said, was the leadership that Scott, one of the team’s captains, supplied in the final two games.

Scott had remained in the background against Stanford and Washington, and so “I challenged him, ‘Get out of your comfort zone. This team needs it,’ ” Bennett said.

“And it was good just hearing him tell [UVa’s other players], ‘We can come back,’ and to keep fighting, to just stay in it, to be solid defensively. Sometimes you put yourself out there, because sometimes you’re the one who’s making mistakes, too. But you’ve got to be willing to talk, you’ve got to be willing to do those things, and I like the way he did that, and I thought the last two games he gave us really nice performances.”

Another standout was 6-9 senior Will Sherrill, who replaced 7-0 junior Assane Sene in the starting lineup after the Stanford loss. Sherrill, a former walk-on, shot 57.1 percent from the floor and averaged 8.3 points and 4.3 boards on the trip.

“I hope that’s something that’ll stay,” Bennett said. “He’s just such a hard worker, and he gives you everything he has, and has a mind for the game. I thought in the limited minutes that [6-8 freshman] Will Regan got, he did some of the same things. He showed some steadiness, and we’re looking for a rotation on that forward frontline that I’m not settled on just.”

Virginia’s frontcourt options include Scott, Sherill, Regan, 6-8 freshman Akil Mitchell and Sene, who grabbed only 5 rebounds on the road trip. Scott and Sherrill have carved out roles, Bennett said, but competition continues among the other three. UVa won’t use five post players in every game.

Nor will it face teams as talented as Washington on a regular basis. The Huskies humbled the ‘Hoos, but Bennett believes his players ultimately will benefit from the experience.

“I told them, ‘This can be a defining moment for us, this Washington game and this stretch of games, as far as how we respond to them,’ ” Bennett recalled. “I said, ‘Take the wins and losses out. As important as they are, it’s got to become more about our quality of play, because it’s too inconsistent, and it wasn’t even close to good enough against Washington, the way they got us totally away from our style, our game.’

“We got so sped up and so rushed and kind of fell into that temptation of fool’s gold. Like I told them, against good defenses, if you think you’re going to just come down and shoot it real quick, or you think you’re going to outscore talented teams like that, you’re just playing right into their hands.”

Virginia turned the ball over 18 times against Stanford, 17 against Washington and 10 against Wichita State.

“Again, I think we found out who we have to be to win: a team that is getting good shots, breaking the defense down and playing the way that gives us a chance,” Bennett said. “So that’s what we gained. It sounds like a cliché, but I think we saw that when you’re inexperienced and you don’t have a ton of depth, you can’t shoot yourself in the foot, whether that’s an untimely turnover or a defensive lapse. It’s good early, but when it needs to be as good as ever is in that last 10 minutes, and that’s when we’ve had some breakdowns in the [losses to] Stanford and Wichita State.”

After the Wichita State game, Bennett ran into Tom Izzo. Michigan State’s legendary coach asked which team was next on UVa’s schedule. That would be an opponent Izzo knows well: the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

“He said, ‘Oh, man, I think they might be the most underrated team in America,’ ” Bennett said.

The 15th-ranked Gophers (6-0) have been dominant so far. They host the Cavaliers in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge’s opening game Monday. ESPN2 will televise the 7 p.m. game.

“The Minnesota game will be our first time [this season] against a real raucous crowd,” Bennett said. The atmosphere at “Stanford was good, but not to that level, and not that caliber of play.”

Before leaving Hawaii, UVa’s players went snorkeling and then cliff diving Thursday, “which I don’t know if I was crazy about,” Bennett said, laughing.

More fearlessness will be required of his players. The Cavaliers will play at JPJ again one day, of course, but that won’t happen until Dec. 7. UVa first must visit Minnesota and then Virginia Tech.

In the ACC opener for both teams, the Hokies host the ‘Hoos on Dec. 5 at Cassell Coliseum. In the preseason poll, Virginia Tech was picked to finish second in the ACC.

“We’ve got ourselves into a fine mess,” Bennett said, laughing again.

 

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