By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett stood near midcourt in the men’s practice gym at John Paul Jones Arena and clapped his hands. He liked his players’ intensity as he put them through defensive drills.
“That’s what we’re trying to foster out there: being able to lock down the other guys,” Bennett told his basketball team Tuesday afternoon. “If we can put that into effect and outlast people, we’re going to frustrate them. They’re going to be like, ‘We don’t want to play against that.’ ”
Practice for Division I men’s teams does not officially begin until Oct. 14. Since Sept. 15, however, coaching staffs have been allowed to work with their teams for two hours each week.
At UVa, where Bennett is in his third year as head coach, much of that time each week has been devoted to defense, and for good reason. At the heart of Bennett’s coaching philosophy is a commitment to rugged defense. Yet his first two teams at Virginia often struggled at that end of the court.
In 2009-010, the Cavaliers ranked last in the ACC in both field-goal percentage defense and 3-point percentage defense. Bennett’s second team fared a little better in both areas — Virginia ranked ninth in the ACC in field-goal defense and 10th in 3-point defense last season — but still fell well short of his standards.
“That’s something we’re really going to address this year,” Bennett said. “Those are two percentages that we want to see get better as we’ve matured and have guys with two years under their belts.”
Those players are UVa’s seniors — power forward Mike Scott, center Assane Sene and guard Sammy Zeglinski — and junior point guard Jontel Evans. “Now we’re just trying to teach Darion, Paul and Malcolm all the stuff that we learned,” Scott said after practice Tuesday.
A year ago, the Wahoos opened practice with six scholarship freshmen on the roster. They have only three this year: guard Malcolm Brogdon, small forward Paul Jesperson and power forward Darion Atkins.
“This is such a hard-working group,” Bennett said of his team, “and hopefully there’s a level of accountability where Mike and Sammy and the guys who’ve been in the program will set the bar and say, ‘If you’re not doing this, you’re going to be falling behind. So you’ve got to be able to get up to this, in terms of the work.’ ”
In these fall practices, Bennett said Tuesday, “You gotta choose what you want to work on, because there’s just not enough time to do everything, but I think some guys have made some gains. We’re really working hard on a few specific things. They really competed hard today, and I think some guys are grasping a little more the mindset that’s needed.”
Bennett cautioned, though, that “until you start going up and down, and putting it all together, you don’t know for sure. It’s like when you get a tennis lesson, or a golf lesson, and it looks good on the range, looks good when you’re hitting, and then all of the sudden you start playing, and you gotta be able to carry some of that over.”
Virginia showed little consistency on defense last season. In losses at JPJ, UVa allowed Maryland to shoot 54 percent from the floor, Boston College 51 percent and Duke 50. But there were also games in which the ‘Hoos played the suffocating defense Bennett wants to see each time his team takes the floor.
In the Cavaliers’ win over Virginia Tech at JPJ, they held the Hokies to 40 percent accurary from the floor. The ‘Hoos shot only 39.5 percent against Clemson at JPJ, but stifling defense enabled them to pull out a narrow victory. The Tigers made only 19 of 57 (33.3 percent) field-goal attempts that night.
“I think we got better, and I think there were stretches of really good defense, but it hasn’t been consistent and statistically where it needs to be,” said Bennett, whose record after two seasons at UVa is 31-31.
He’s been through this process before. Bennett headed west to Washington State with his father, Dick, in 2003, and they coached together in Pullman for three seasons.
Dick Bennett’s first team at WSU ranked 276th nationally in field-goal percentage defense. His third and final team there ranked 12th nationally in that category.
Tony Bennett succeeded his father as head coach at the Pac-10 school, and his three teams at Wazzu ranked 29th, 57th and 10th nationally, respectively, in field-goal percentage defense.
At Washington State, the more familiar players became with Dick Bennett’s trademark Pack Line Defense — a system Tony Bennett brought to UVa in 2009 — the better they were able to execute it. And that gives the younger Bennett reason to believe his team will take another step forward defensively in 2011-12.
“There’s a level of anticipation, as opposed to just reacting, that comes the more comfortable you get,” Bennett said.
For Sene, Scott, Zeglinski and Evans, this is year No. 3 in the Pack Line. It’s not new for swingman Joe Harris, guard KT Harrell, forward Akil Mitchell or center James Johnson, either. All were introduced to the Bennetts’ defensive principles when they enrolled at the University last summer.
The term “Pack Line” refers to an imaginary line 2 feet inside the 3-point arc. This man-to-man defense is designed to clog the middle, protect the paint and prevent dribble-penetration by guards. Defenders do not deny opposing players on the wings. Instead, they sag back inside the Pack Line, coming back out to aggressively challenge outside shooters.
“It’s a team defense,” Bennett said. “It’s a hard defense to play, because again you have to all be on the same page. One breakdown can affect you. You’re taking away lane penetration, and you have to constantly reposition yourself. And if you’re a little reactive, or you’re a little slow when the ball swings, it can get you.”
Bennett has been coaching for more than a decade, and he’s seen the college game change during that time. It’s no longer uncommon for a team to have four capable 3-point shooters on the floor at one time.
“Before, it was one or two guys,” Bennett said.
An injury limited the 6-8 Scott to only 10 games last season, and Bennett often used a lineup with the 6-6 Harris at power forward. With Scott healthy again, size should not be an issue for Virginia this season. Sene is 7-0, Johnson is 6-9, and Mitchell and Atkins are each 6-8.
In scoring defense, the Cavaliers ranked third among ACC teams in each of Bennett’s first two seasons. But that was largely a product of UVa’s offensive style, which rarely results in fast-paced, high-scoring games.
In steals and blocked shots, Virginia has ranked near the bottom of the ACC under Bennett, but that doesn’t bother him.
“I’d probably rather get more charges and contested shots,” he said.
Bennett has nothing against shot-blockers, and he believes Atkins will help the ‘Hoos in that area. Still, Bennett doesn’t want his players giving up offensive rebounds by getting out of position to challenge shots. Likewise, he’s happy for his players to come up with steals, but he doesn’t want them taking unnecessary risks that leave their teammates exposed defensively.
“It’s such a team defense,” Bennett said. “It’s not an individual defense. It’s about really being solid over the long haul and outlasting teams. If you don’t give up easy stuff, that wears on teams. It can be a difficult defense to score on, certainly — we’ve proved that — but when it’s played right, even getting good shots is tough.”
Because of his ankle injury, Scott was granted a hardship waiver that allowed him to return for a fifth year at UVa. In the offseason, he dropped about 10 pounds and is now around 235.
He’s quicker now, and that should make him a better defender, Scott believes. Moreover, he said, as his career has progressed, he’s gained a greater appreciation for the importance of defense.
“Most definitely,” Scott said with a smile. “I thought it was all about running and dunking. That’s just being young and dumb, not really knowing the game.”