Nov. 11, 2013

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — On his way back to UVa after fall break, Mike Tobey ran into a familiar face at the airport in Newark, N.J. — VCU men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart.

They know each through USA Basketball. Tobey, a 6-11 sophomore, played on the United States team that in July won the gold medal at FIBA’s under-19 world championships in Prague, Czech Republic. Leading the U.S. team was Florida’s Billy Donovan, and his assistant coaches were Smart and UVa’s Tony Bennett.

“He’s a good guy,” Tobey said of Smart.

A certain game, not surprisingly, came up when the two spoke last month in Newark, though they didn’t talk about it at length. “It was more kidding around about it,” Tobey recalled.

The game is almost here. At 7 p.m. Tuesday, No. 25 Virginia (1-0) hosts No. 14 VCU (1-0) at John Paul Jones Arena. ESPN2 will televise this long-awaited showdown between the state’s top two men’s programs.

“It’s going to be a great crowd and a great atmosphere,” Bennett said Monday morning.

Indeed, this will be the first sellout of 14,563-seat JPJ for a non-conference game since Syracuse came to town Dec. 5, 2007.

“It’s great to have the crowd behind us,” Tobey said, “but more importantly we’ve got to get the W.”

These teams haven’t faced each other in a game since Nov. 11, 1998, when UVa won 86-70 in Richmond. They met in a closed scrimmage last October at JPJ, where the Cavaliers experienced first-hand the full-court pressure for which Smart’s teams are known. But Virginia was without point guards Jontel Evans and Teven Jones in the scrimmage, and both teams have changed since then.

Evans has graduated, and sophomore Malcolm Brogdon, who missed last season while recovering from a foot injury, has taken over as the Wahoos’ starting point guard.

“What we didn’t see in that scrimmage is their full complement of players,” Smart told reporters Monday morning in Richmond. But the Cavaliers “saw our press. We saw their motion offense. We saw their stingy half-court defense. That’s obviously a tape they’re watching closely, and one we are too.”

Both teams opened with convincing victories Friday night. At JPJ, Virginia whipped JMU 61-41. At the Siegel Center in Richmond, VCU destroyed Illinois State 96-58. Led by junior guard Briante Weber, who had five steals, the Rams forced 22 turnovers.

“I wish he was the only defender that stuck out [for VCU],” Bennett said, laughing. “I think there’s about 20 of them that stick out. However many are on the floor, it seems like 20.”

The Cavaliers have spent part of virtually every practice this fall working on breaking the press.

“We’ve got seven, eight, nine [defenders] on the floor sometimes, trying to simulate the pressure,” UVa assistant coach Jason Williford said Sunday night. Still, he said, it’s impossible for the scout team to duplicate the Rams’ quickness and athleticism.

“I’ve watched a lot of film,” Williford said. “They’re good.”

Brogdon knows his decision-making and sureness with the ball will be tested Tuesday night.

“It’s a challenge, but that’s my role, and if we’re going to win games, I gotta play my role just like everybody else,” Brogdon said after the JMU game. “Ballhandling’s part of it, and I gotta do it.”

Teams that have had success against VCU, including Saint Louis in last season’s Atlantic 10 championship game, have avoided turnovers against the press.

“They’ve been able to get it across, and then run offense,” Williford said. “They’ve made VCU work. And so if you can do that, if you can take care of the ball and then make them work defensively, that slows them down.”

Defensive rebounding — limiting the Rams to one shot per possession — is also important, Williford said. “If they miss, rebound the miss. When they can’t score and get in their press, it’s a lot different.”

Williford, a former UVa standout, grew up in Richmond and is familiar with VCU’s proud history in hoops. He knows all about such former Rams as Calvin Duncan, Edmund Sherod, Monty Knight, Phil Stinnie and Kendrick Warren. But Williford admits that he never dreamed a UVa-VCU game would attract so much attention.

“Credit to that program,” Williford said. “Shaka’s done a good job, and there are a lot of people that should be proud of where that program has come. They’ve done so much for the city [of Richmond].”

Williford laughed. “In fact, my parents are even huge Rams fans, other than when they play UVa, obviously. It’ll be an interesting matchup. Contrast in styles.”

The Rams like to play at breakneck speed. The Cavaliers’ defense, known as the Pack Line, often slows opponents down.

“You’ve got to move the ball, and you’ve got to move bodies,” Smart said. “If you stand around, it’s very, very difficult to get in the lane.

“You can’t get frustrated. Their defense is one that’s frustrated many a team, so you have to stay with it. They’re very good at forcing low-percentage shots.”

The team that succeeds in getting the game played at its preferred tempo is likely to have an advantage Tuesday night Smart acknowledged, “but I don’t think [pace is] necessarily going to be the be-all, end-all”

More important, Smart said, is “who’s getting quality shots and who’s making them.”

In July 2011, Bennett, Smart and Arizona’s Sean Miller served as court coaches in Colorado Springs, Colo., for the U.S. team that competed at the World University Games in China that summer.

Bennett and Smart, both Wisconsin natives, formed a friendship then. They grew closer this year on the U19 team.

“He’s a guy I’ve got tremendous respect for,” said Smart, who’s also a good friend of Ritchie McKay, UVa’s associate head coach.

Bennett called Smart “one of the best young minds in the game.”

In Prague, they spent countless hours together, scouting the other teams in the tournament.

“You try to learn as much as you can from each other,” Bennett said. “There’s not many secrets in the game today, but we talked a lot of stuff: recruiting, style of play, motivation, different things that we tried to help each other out with.”

They didn’t talk much, however, about what would take place Nov. 12 in Charlottesville.

“He knew that I knew about it, and I knew that he knew about it,” Smart said, “but we were just focused on our team and helping Billy.”

Now, though, the much-anticipated meeting is at hand, and the head coaches are eager to see what unfolds at JPJ.

“You can’t [play] every team in the state every year, but I think it’s good for the game, good for your program, and it challenges you,” Bennett said. “It’s an opportunity for us, it’s an opportunity for them, hopefully two good teams going at it in a great game Tuesday night.”

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