By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Midnight was approaching by the time the UVa men’s basketball team got back to John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday. The sun was barely up when the Cavaliers reconvened at JPJ the next morning.
About 12 hours earlier, nearly 1,000 miles from Charlottesville, UVa had lost 75-72 to Green Bay.
On Sunday morning, the players reviewed video of their many breakdowns against Green Bay, Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s alma mater. Then they took to the court for a short, intense practice in which they tried to correct those mistakes.
“It was tough, because we played a hard-fought game [Saturday night at Green Bay],” sophomore swingman Justin Anderson said Tuesday at JPJ. “The second half we fought hard, and a lot of guys were tired. But I think we needed it. I think that was another step in the right direction for this season. The reason why I say that is because Coach is holding us to a higher standard than he has in the past. I know it’s because he knows that we’re better than what we’ve shown.”
The Cavaliers, who began the season ranked No. 24 nationally by The Associated Press, had hoped to be 10-0 when they broke for final exams. Instead, they’re 7-3, with losses to VCU, No. 4 Wisconsin and Green Bay, teams whose combined record is 24-5.
“I think we have the makings to be better than we’re showing,” Bennett said after the Green Bay game. However, he added, if “you can’t play from start to finish and not have big lulls, you won’t be in games with the competition we’re going to go against.”
After blowing a late lead and losing 59-56 to VCU at JPJ on Nov. 12, Virginia ran off six straight victories before falling 48-38 to visiting Wisconsin in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game Dec. 4. Poor shooting plagued the Wahoos against the Badgers. Three nights later, poor defense — along with 11 first-half turnovers — doomed UVa against Green Bay.
“All we can do is learn from it,” Anderson said. “We have the personnel, we have the talent, we have the coaching staff, we have everything we need. I think we need to just make sure we stay the course and put up blinders to all the negativity.”
This non-conference schedule may be the Cavaliers’ most challenging in five seasons under Bennett, who knew they’d be tested early.
“When you play a schedule like this,” Bennett said Tuesday, “you’re going to put yourself in spots where if you don’t play well, or when you don’t play a fairly complete game for the majority of the game — meaning you better be solid at both ends — you’ll be beat.
“This is reality. This is college basketball.”
The `Hoos are close “to being what we think is a good team,” Bennett said, “but never that far away from being able to be beaten by anybody.”
Free throws have been problematic for Bennett’s team. UVa is shooting only 64.4 percent from the line, in part because junior big man Darion Atkins (6 for 15), senior big man Akil Mitchell (21 for 37) and senior guard Joe Harris (14 of 26) have been misfiring.
The Cavaliers are shooting a more-than-respectable 46.6 percent from the floor, but they have more turnovers (133) than assists (130). Most troubling to Bennett, though, have probably been his team’s defensive breakdowns.
Green Bay shot 51 percent from the floor and made 7 of 14 attempts from 3-point range.
“We didn’t communicate,” said redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led UVa with 17 points and six rebounds. “We weren’t talking enough on screens.”
Bennett said: “I think the defensive lapses are coming sometimes from our less-experienced players, and that’s kind of to be expected. But that is disappointing.
“Defense can be more predictable than offense. So when the defense has a few letdowns, that’s probably more unacceptable than a night when the offense is poor and we miss shots and don’t execute.”
The `Hoos are deep, and Bennett’s nine-man rotation includes only one freshman, point guard London Perrantes. But two other regulars, Brogdon and redshirt sophomore big man Anthony Gill, sat out last season, and they’ve had lapses that Bennett attributes to their time away from competition. Other Cavaliers have struggled at times, too.
“So I think some of those things have showed,” Bennett said. “We call them `small tears’ or `small incisions,’ nothing glaring, that have been just enough to put us on the wrong side against the quality opponents that we’ve been beat by.”
Wisconsin had nearly a week to prepare for UVa, as did Green Bay. Virginia, by contrast, didn’t return from the Corpus Christi Challenge until late on Dec. 1.
A season ago, when the Cavaliers upset Wisconsin at the Kohl Center in Madison, that game was their first in more than a week.
“So all those things come into play, but the bottom line is the bottom line,” Bennett said. “We were beat, and we had chances to perhaps be in those games or win them, and we didn’t, and now we’re sitting here knowing we’ve got to keep improving.”
That’s not cause for panic, Bennett emphasized. “Not at all. We’re going to have a chance in our league.”
Virginia opens ACC play Jan. 4 at Florida State. First, though, the Cavaliers have three more non-conference games. UVa hosts Northern Iowa on Dec. 21 and Norfolk State two nights later. Then Virginia visits Tennessee for a Dec. 30 game that ESPN2 will televise.
Players being players, they’re not thrilled that the break between the Green Bay and Northern Iowa games is so long.
“But I’ve actually been really surprised how our team has handled it,” Anderson said. “We’ve just come into practice every day and competed against each other as if it was another game. I think we’ve all put that Green Bay game past us.”
Exams started Monday at Virginia, and Bennett wants his players’ top priority to be academics. “Here, there’s no messing around,” he said. “You need all your attention and energy focused on your studies.”
Bennett’s stance hasn’t changed on that. He has tinkered, though, with his team’s practice schedule during final exams. Bennett was struck by the San Antonio Spurs’ approach during a lengthy break last postseason.
After completing their sweep of Memphis in the Western Conference Finals May 27, the Spurs didn’t play again until June 4. During that break, Bennett said, San Antonio practiced every other day.
In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Spurs knocked off the Miami Heat 92-88.
“They went on, off, on, off, and they came into that first game and played well, felt fresh,” Bennett said. “And I remember at that time I said, `I’m going to try that for finals,’ because it’s good.”
Practicing every other day gives his players time for their studies, Bennett said, “and it lets their bodies recover, but it doesn’t get them far away from action. You gotta do some kind of formula, and I like that. I think it’s a positive.”
He laughed. “Hopefully we play like the Spurs,” Bennett said.