By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the seats are empty at John Paul Jones Arena, voices carry on the main court. Tony Bennett’s players could not have missed their coach’s instructions had they tried Tuesday afternoon.
“Stop the ball!” Bennett yelled. “Stop the ball! I’m telling you, this game is going to come down to our ability to set our defense.”
Defensive drills dominate most of the practices Bennett runs at UVa, and the time is well-spent. The Cavaliers rank second nationally, out of 345 teams, in scoring defense (50.6 ppg). Four times this season Virginia has held an opponent to fewer than 40 points, most recently Saturday in a 56-36 thumping of Florida State at JPJ.
“Well, we haven’t been scoring too well ourselves, so we better play good defense,” said Bennett, whose team ranks 283rd nationally in points per game (62.1).
The Cavaliers’ trademark Pack Line defense will be tested Thursday night in Blacksburg. At 8 o’clock, Virginia (12-5, 2-2) meets Virginia Tech (11-6, 2-2) in an ACC game at Cassell Coliseum. The Hokies are averaging 75.5 points. The Wahoos have shut down several high-octane offenses this season — most notably, North Carolina’s — but they haven’t faced many players as talented as Tech guard Erick Green.
“He’s complete,” Bennett said. “You can’t say, `Well, if we take this thing away from him, then he’s in trouble.’ He’s got a lot of different weapons.”
A 6-4, 185-pound senior from Winchester, Green leads the nation in scoring (24.6 ppg). Only once this season — in a Dec. 29 loss at BYU — has he finished with fewer than 21 points.
“Erick Green is a very, very good player,” Bennett said. “In a lot of ways, he’s a very good model or example for college players to look at. Because he’s stayed and gotten better every year, and now he’s found himself as the leading scorer in the country.”
On offense, junior swingman Joe Harris (15.2 ppg) is as important to the `Hoos as Green is to the Hokies. But just as Tech must worry about Harris’ teammates, UVa can’t afford to focus solely on Green. Bennett knows that 6-7 forward Jarell Eddie and 6-5 guard Robert Brown, in particular, are capable of putting up big numbers for the Hokies, and 6-9 center Cadarian Raines can be an imposing presence inside.
“So they have some guys,” Bennett said. “But it starts with Erick Green. There’s no question about it, and he can impact a game in a lot of ways, and that’s what you always look at, from the transition side of things to the free-throw line to driving to the pull-up to mid-range to 3s. Watching the Wake Forest game, you saw he’s a one-man fast break.”
To his players, Bennett always stresses the importance of transition defense, of not allowing opponents to get easy baskets. Against a team that looks to run at every opportunity, such as Tech, that’s especially important.
The Hokies are coming off a 66-65 win over Wake Forest at Cassell Coliseum. Green scored 18 of his 22 points in the second half to lead Tech’s comeback.
“You know, Erick Green is a one-man fast break,” Wake’s Jeff Bzdelik said Monday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference. “I mean, he just goes coast to coast, and his head was down. He got loose in the defensive transition in the second half too many times.”
Leading UVa’s effort to disrupt Green’s rhythm will be point guard Jontel Evans, and he’s well-suited for the assignment.
A 5-11 senior from Hampton, Evans made the ACC’s all-defensive team in 2011-12. He missed nine games in November and December while recovering from a foot injury, and he’s been prone to turnovers since his return this month, but “I feel like my defense is still the same,” Evans said after practice Tuesday.
“Now that I’m trusting my foot a lot more, I feel like I can get into guys and pressure them, beat screens and be physical like people are used to seeing me.”
Green’s predecessors at Tech included another high-scoring guard, Malcolm Delaney. Green’s game, Evans said, differs from Delaney’s.
“I feel like Delaney was more of an attack guy,” Evans said. “Erick Green is more of a guy that’s going to capitalize on your mistakes on defense. If you try to beat the screen or whatever, he’s going to get his shot. You gotta be honest and you gotta be sound on defense. If not, he’s going to capitalize.”
Evans is likely to start on Green, but this game will not come down to a one-on-one matchup.
“It’s a big game for our defense,” Evans said. “It’s not just me on him. It’s our defense against everybody. But if he gets going, then they’re tough to beat. If our defense is containing him and making him shoot contested shots, then the game should go in our favor.”
Does he relish the challenge of covering Green? Absolutely, Evans said. “If he’s the leading scorer in the nation, and if I’m able to go in there and hold him to a good amount that’s not his average, then I’ll take that.”
Evans came into the season as the only senior among UVa’s scholarship players — guard Doug Browman was awarded a scholarship this semester — and his value to the team cannot be overstated. And so the Cavaliers were encouraged by Evans’ play against FSU. His ballhandling and decision-making were shaky at times, but Evans totaled six points, five rebounds, seven assists and one steal in 28 minutes and played the suffocating defense for which he’s known.
“Everything in stretches is there, it’s just being able to maintain it and be consistent and sustain it,” Bennett said. “But he still has only three weeks under his belt. He’s better than he was. Week 2 was better than Week 1, and you can just see it, and at some point he’ll get to where he’s more comfortable and he can let the game come to him.
“But there’s so many repetitions that you miss out on, when you’re not out there in the preseason and during the season, so many things where your timing and your instincts just get sharpened and become more natural to you. And he’s missed out on a lot of those. Forget the games. I’m talking about the practice reps from preseason. That’s where you’re laying the groundwork. Because he’s been in the system longer, he can overcome it, but you do need reps and you do need to be put in those situations on a continual basis, to form the habits that you need.”
About 40 hours after the Cavaliers conclude their annual visit to Cassell Coliseum, they’ll take on Boston College at John Paul Jones Arena, a scheduling twist that doesn’t thrill Bennett. Today, however, the Wahoos’ full focus is on the Hokies.
UVa has won its past two games at Cassell Coliseum. The Cavaliers would like nothing better than to run that streak to three.
“This rivalry is pretty big here, and I’m just ready to go down there and do what we have to do,” Evans said.