By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — To hear Oregon’s first-year men’s basketball coach, it won’t be difficult to tell the teams apart Friday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
“They’re going to try to control the tempo of the game, and we’re going to try to speed it up,” Dana Altman said. “It’ll kind of be a contrast in styles.”
In the first meeting between these schools in this sport, UVa (6-3) hosts Oregon (7-3) at 8 o’clock. The Cavaliers are 0-2 against teams from the Pac-10 this season, and Tony Bennett, who used to coach in that league, hopes to reverse that trend Friday night.
That’s not likely to happen, though, if Virginia plays the way it did against Stanford or, especially, Washington. At last month’s Maui Invitational, UVa allowed the Huskies to turn their game into a track meet, much to Bennett’s displeasure, and lost 106-63.
The Ducks, who start no one taller than 6-6, will apply full-court pressure from the opening tip, hoping to force Virginia out of its game plan again.
“That’ll be a challenge, because that’s definitely what they want to do, and we really labored and struggled [against the Huskies],” Bennett said. “We failed that test against Washington, without a doubt.”
UVa’s second-year coach has talked repeatedly about how Washington “sped up” his team. He still want his players to look for opportunities to score against the press, but if “you’re forcing [things], if you’re turning it over, if you’re not back on defense, and it shows up in those areas because you’re rushing or panicking, then that’s a bad sign,” Bennett said.
“Again, you have to have a level of aggressiveness, and at times you have to be opportunistic and play fast. By no means am I saying you’ve got to come up and walk it up and stall, but I want us to have a good picture of what can happen when we step over the line and become forcing or rushing or not sound. I think that will be a challenge and the opportunity to, as we keep saying, see if we’ve learned some things going against Oregon. Because yes, certainly, Washington got us in that game. We couldn’t handle that at the time.”
The Ducks employ a variety of presses. The key for UVa, Bennett said, will be to alertly attack that pressure “with soundness, spacing, getting the right people in the right spots, and then looking to break it to score, and if not, then you run some good offense behind it.”
Finals end Friday at UVa, and five of Bennett’s players have exams that afternoon. The ‘Hoos have not played since Dec. 7, when they stumbled to a 54-44 win over Radford at JPJ.
“It’s tough,” Bennett said of the long break for exams, but education “is obviously what they’re here for.”
The Ducks, meanwhile, have played twice in the past week, “so they’ll be a little more match-ready from that standpoint,” Bennett said. “But you just make the most of it.”
Oregon starts 6-6, 245-pound senior Joevan Catron and 6-6, 210-pound sophomore E.J. Singler in the frontcourt. Catron, a former high school teammate of UVa guard Mustapha Farrakhan, leads the Ducks in scoring (17.6 ppg) and is second in rebounds (6.6 per game). Singler, whose brother, Kyle, stars for defending NCAA champion Duke, is second in scoring (13.1) and first in rebounds (6.7).
UVa may use four perimeter players at times to better match up with Oregon, with 6-6 freshman Joe Harris as a power forward of sorts. But Bennett has options. Several ‘Hoos stand 6-8 or taller, including 7-0 junior Assane Sene.
“Their physicality and their size will create a lot of problems for us,” Altman said. “Rebounding is probably our first concern. We’re not a big basketball team, so everybody’s got to make it a priority to rebound the basketball.”
Altman’s counterpart didn’t sound convinced that UVa’s superior size will make such a difference.
“It depends,” Bennett said. “If we’re locked in and we’re on the glass and we’re playing well, I think it can be an advantage for us. We’re not a huge team, by any stretch of the imagination. I know [the Ducks are] a little smaller and mobile, and they try to take advantage of it with their spacing and sometimes playing fast and doing those things. Hopefully any advantage we have, we can use that.”
This is the second of eight consecutive home games for UVa. The ‘Hoos host Norfolk State on Monday (7 p.m.) and Seattle on Wednesday (7 p.m.) before breaking for Christmas.
Look for the roles of 6-8 freshmen Will Regan and Akil Mitchell to grow during this homestand. Regan is a “heady player,” Bennett said, with a superb feel for the game. Mitchell is the most athletically gifted of Virginia’s big men and could become a lockdown defender.
“They’ve had limited minutes, but those limited minutes are very valuable in my opinion,” Bennett said. “For any first-year or freshman to have opportunities, that’s huge.”