July 9, 2012

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — On an oppressively hot weekend, members of the UVa men’s basketball team spent many of their waking hours inside John Paul Jones Arena.

With temperatures outside hovering near 100, JPJ’s air-conditioning units were cranking all weekend. But the Cavaliers were not chilling as head coach Tony Bennett put them through what he called a “three-day minicamp.”

The Wahoos practiced once Friday, twice Saturday and once Sunday.

“I loved it,” freshman swingman Justin Anderson said Sunday night. “I loved every bit of it. Got to get out there and learn a little bit about the defense, get out there and learn a little bit about the offense, the spacing that we want. I took this weekend as a huge learning weekend, and I think I’m ready.”

Your calendar is not wrong. It’s early July, and UVa’s 2012-13 opener is still more than four months away. But the ‘Hoos need to get ready for competition long before that. The team leaves Aug. 6 for a 10-day trip to Europe, coordinated by Anthony Travel, that will include at least four games.

Under NCAA rules, a Division I team may practice 10 times before a foreign trip. Bennett must work in these practices around the July recruiting period, which begins Wednesday. And so on a scorching weekend when UVa’s other athletics venues were all but deserted, bouncing balls echoed inside JPJ.

“You go at it pretty hard for three days concentrated,” Bennett said.

In June 2007, after his first season as head coach at Washington State, Bennett took his team on a tour of Australia and New Zealand. The Cougars went on to finish 26-9 and advance to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen in 2007-08.

“We had a veteran team,” Bennett recalled Friday night. “This is different. We have a younger team, which is why this is so valuable.”

Gone from the team that finished 22-10 in 2011-12, an NCAA tournament team, are forward Mike Scott, guard Sammy Zeglinski and center Assane Sene. Since the end of last season, five scholarship players have joined the Cavaliers’ program: Anderson, center Mike Tobey, forward Evan Nolte, guard Taylor Barnette and forward Anthony Gill, a transfer from the University of South Carolina. (Gill, under NCAA rules, isn’t allowed to play on the Europe tour and won’t travel with the team.)

Another newcomer of sorts is first-year guard Teven Jones, who enrolled at UVa in January but did not play last season. Of the Cavaliers’ scholarship players, only one, point guard Jontel Evans, is a senior. The junior class consists of two players: swingman Joe Harris and forward Akil Mitchell.

Harris, who played the final month of last season with a broken non-shooting hand, is Virginia’s top returning scorer (11.3 ppg). On such an inexperienced team — the Cavaliers also have three sophomores — Harris knows his role has changed.

“As a freshman and a sophomore, you kind of follow the older guys and just try and watch them and learn as much as you can,” Harris said. “Now that I’m an upperclassman, I take it upon myself to try to help out the younger guys and try and take a couple of them under my wing and help them out as much as I can.”

The ‘Hoos will visit the Netherlands, Belgium and France next month. For Mitchell, it will be his second trip to Europe since his second year at UVa. He recently toured Poland and Germany with an Athletes in Action team.

The ever-exuberant Anderson is already something of a world traveler. His basketball career has taken him to Argentina, Germany and Lithuania. But that hasn’t diminished his excitement about the Cavaliers’ upcoming trip.

“It’s gonna be awesome,” Anderson said. “It’s a chance for us to get away from everybody else in the States. Not that we really want to, but we get to learn a lot about each other, and play with each other against some great competition, so it’ll be great for us.”

Harris echoed his younger teammate’s comments.

“I’m really excited to go,” Harris. “First of all, I know a lot of us have never been to Europe before, so the opportunity to get over there and see a different part of the world is going to be a great experience. And to play against really good competition and just kind of build our team chemistry with all these new guys that we have will be great. And all these practices are huge for us, I think.”

Under an NCAA rule that went into effect this year, men’s basketball teams in Division I are allowed to practice two hours per week when summer school is in session. So Bennett and assistants Ritchie McKay, Ron Sanchez and Jason Williford had been on the court with their players before Friday. Still, the first official practice for the Europe trip was different. For starters, it lasted nearly three hours.

“You don’t worry at all about time,” Bennett said. “We took lots more time explaining things, went longer on the drills. We just did it over and over and got a feel for it.”

Not surprisingly, Bennett devoted considerable time to teaching his defensive principles. For veterans such as Harris, Evans and Mitchell, this was nothing new. The newcomers are quickly learning how much emphasis Bennett places on what he calls the “non-negotiables,” which include transition defense.

“You really gotta fly back,” Bennett reminded his players Friday night. That didn’t always happen, and the coach’s patience was tested as the defensive breakdowns mounted.

“There’s a point where it’s not acceptable, and it’s getting to that point,” Bennett yelled at one point.

A team preparing for a foreign trip is allowed four hours of practice per day, and the Cavaliers’ two workouts Saturday counted as only one of the team’s allotted 10 practices. The ‘Hoos went about two-and-a-half hours Sunday night, and the players’ energy levels dipped late in the practice.

Bennett grew up in Green Bay, Wis., where Vince Lombardi reigned. Two hours into practice Sunday night, Bennett gathered his players around him and, urging them to keep battling, repeated one of Lombardi’s most famous sayings: “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

One of the Cavaliers’ best players, sophomore guard Malcom Brogdon, is recovering from foot surgery and can’t fully participate in practice. (Brogdon will travel with the team to Europe but won’t play in any games there.) Bennett’s team may look significantly different in January than it does in July, but he came away from “mini-camp” pleased.

“You just want to see improvement and guys grasping the big picture,” Bennett said. “I thought there was a decent understanding of some conceptual things. We wanted to experiment with a couple new ideas, and some of those things started to give us a clear picture of whether we want to go in that direction or not. But this also gave these guys a taste of what a couple real college practices will be like and the intensity that’s demanded of it.”

Bennett’s final words to his players Sunday night: “Good work this weekend. Good first step.”

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