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Oct. 9, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — This is Akil Mitchell’s fourth year in the University of Virginia men’s basketball program, and the 6-8 forward from Charlotte, N.C., has spent hundreds of hours on the court with Tony Bennett. Mitchell has seen a change in the Cavaliers’ head coach this fall.

“He’s a little bit more fiery,” Mitchell said.

Bennett has always been blunt with his players, and that hasn’t changed. Late in practice Tuesday evening, he addressed them after a five-on-five drill that displeased him.

“I thought you had more grit and toughness to fight through fatigue,” Bennett said. “You guys look like you can hardly move, it’s so hard. You have to find a way to fight through this.”

Bennett enters his fifth season at UVa with a veteran team that includes only two freshmen: guards Devon Hall and London Perrantes. With such players as Mitchell (third-team All-ACC in 2012-13), senior Joe Harris (first-team All-ACC) and sophomores Justin Anderson and Mike Tobey back from a team that won 23 games last season, Virginia will be picked to finish in the upper half of the ACC in 2013-14.

The Cavaliers have lofty goals, but Bennett knows they’ll have to earn them.

“If I think guys can handle it, if I think guys are slacking in certain areas or aren’t ready and they can do more than they’re showing, then it’s my job to let them know and to push them to that,” Bennett said Monday night after practice at John Paul Jones Arena.

“It’s my job to let them know that what might have been acceptable as a freshman or a sophomore isn’t acceptable as a junior or a senior. I think there’s a mindset that has to be brought to practice, and we’re trying to make the most of our time. I just want us to be as good as we can be, and wherever that places us, great. That’s what Rick Carlisle talked about to the guys. He said, `It’s all about the process,’ and that’s what I believe, too.”

Carlisle, a former UVa player who’s now head coach of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, returned to his alma mater recently to speak to third-year students during their traditional ring ceremony.

His visit overlapped with the Wahoos’ first official practice for 2013-14, and Carlisle spoke to Bennett’s players on Sept. 27. So did the man for whom Carlisle played at UVa, Terry Holland.

Carlisle has won an NBA championship with the Mavs. Holland won 326 games in his 16 seasons at Virginia. His UVa teams made nine appearances in the NCAA tournament, including two trips to the Final Four, and four in the NIT, including one championship.

“We had two of the great basketball minds here,” Bennett said. “I was so grateful and thankful that those two guys would come in and talk to our guys. It brought a lot of excitement, and I loved it. I think our guys understood the significance of that, and certainly our staff did, and we got to spend a little time with Coach Carlisle and Coach Holland up in my office.”

Concentrate on the process, Carlisle told the team, and the results will come.

Bennett said Carlisle “used the analogy of, we’re going to run a last-second play for one of you guys. You’re coming off the screen, and you’re thinking the wrong stuff if you’re thinking, `I’m going to make this shot.’ You should be thinking about how you’re going to come off the screen, how your footwork should be: right, left, balance, rhythm, release. He said it’s all about the steps leading up to it, and he said that holds true to your practices, how competitive you are, each day improving, forgetting about what’s down the road. We just want to be as good as we can be.”

Under NCAA rules, a Division I team may practice 30 times in the 42 days before its opener.

“It’s been a little sporadic,” Bennett said, “but we’re building into it. It’s been competitive, physical — you can see that — at times sloppy. At times you see some guys make some plays that are nice, you’re encouraged, but realistically we got a ways to go. We gotta keep building the little things first, but it’s nice to see, when we’re healthy, the depth that is at our disposal.”

That, Mitchell said, is how this UVa team differs most from the others he’s played on. The Cavaliers finished 16-15 when he was a freshman, 22-10 (with a trip to the NCAA tourney) when he was a sophomore, and 23-12 last season.

“Every guy can play, at every position, and it makes us have to bring it, every day in practice,” Mitchell said. “Our offense is way behind our defense right now, but I think every guy is really competing with each other for playing time and for spots on the floor, so it’s making every guy better every day.”

In the frontcourt alone are such players as Mitchell, Tobey, junior Darion Atkins, sophomore Evan Nolte and redshirt sophomore Anthony Gill, who sat out last season after transferring to UVa from South Carolina. Gill started 26 games for the Gamecocks in 2011-12. Moreover, the 6-6 Anderson can move from the wing to power forward when Bennett wants to use a smaller, quicker lineup.

“It makes us all better,” Mitchell said of the frontcourt competition. “Every day you’re going against a guy that’s just as good defensively as you are or just as good offensively as you are, so you really have to bring it. With these guys, we’re all so competitive it makes us all better on a daily basis. That should bode well for the whole season.”

On the perimeter, Virginia’s options include Harris, Anderson, Hall, Perrantes and redshirt sophomores Teven Jones and Malcolm Brogdon. The Cavaliers’ sixth man for most of his freshman season, Brogdon is healthy again after sitting out 2012-13 while recovering from foot surgery.

Even if, as Mitchell says, UVa’s defense is ahead of its offense, Bennett wants to see more from players at that end. That’s not surprising for a coach whose teams have been known for their rugged defense. Gill and Brogdon played for the scout team in practice last season, and the standards are higher for them now.

“You can tell Malcolm and Anthony haven’t been under my watchful eye defensively,” Bennett said, smiling. “Now you’re not a redshirt, you’re not sitting out. We’re watching all your breakdowns, so they’ve got to get used to the timing and the pace, but everybody does.

“We lost a good one in Jontel [Evans] defensively, but with the size and the physicalness, we should be a sound, solid position defensive team. But defense is just good old-fashioned hard work. The second you think you got that figured out, you’re in trouble, and we need now to put the time in and work our reps, work our positioning, so that we become sounder and sounder as this thing gets closer to playing.”

The first of Virginia’s two closed scrimmages is Oct. 26, against Georgetown. UVa opens the season Nov. 8 against JMU at John Paul Jones Arena. Four nights later, the `Hoos host Atlantic 10 power VCU in a game for which fewer than 1,500 tickets remain.

Single-game tickets are now on sale for UVa home games. For ticket information, visit VirginiaSports.com, call (800) 542-8821 or visit the Virginia Athletics Ticket Office in Bryant Hall (9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday).

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