By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Too often since taking over as men’s basketball coach at the University of Virginia, Tony Bennett has seen his team limp into postseason, hobbled by injuries, fatigue, attrition or a combination of all three.
In 2012, for example, Virginia entered the ACC and NCAA tournaments with seven healthy scholarship players. “Six and a half,” Bennett clarified this week, noting that Joe Harris played with a broken non-shooting hand that postseason. Moreover, that team’s two reserves were freshmen, one of whom had gone into the season expecting to redshirt.
And so, as Bennett prepared for his fifth season in Charlottesville, he revamped the Cavaliers’ training schedule for 2013-14.
“We haven’t eased up on the intensity of practice, but probably the duration of it in different settings,” Bennett said Wednesday at John Paul Jones Arena. “And Mike Curtis has been phenomenal.”
Curtis, a former UVa player, is the strength and conditioning coach for basketball at his alma mater. He works closely with Bennett, who this week was named ACC Coach of the Year.
“I don’t know how scientific or cutting-edge we are, but we’re doing some testing just to measure some things and gauge practices,” Bennett said. “You gotta be careful about not overdoing it, but you also can’t underdo it. That’s the fine line. That’s the sweet spot.”
Also, Bennett said, what “we’re doing more than in the past, too, is what Mike calls corrective exercises. There’s been more time spent doing foam rolls, soft-tissue stuff, prehab and rehab, before practice and sometimes after. The volume of that is more than we’ve ever done before.”
Will these changes pay postseason dividends for the sixth-ranked Wahoos?
“I hope so,” Bennett said Wednesday. “I told the players at the start of practice today, `I wish I could wave a magic wand, and you’d feel 100-percent healthy and totally refreshed. Well, that’s just not the way it works when you’ve played 30-plus games.’
“But what’s been good is the break from Syracuse to Maryland, and Maryland to [the ACC tourney]. There was a chance to get some recuperation, and I think absolutely they’re in a better spot from a gas-in-the-tank standpoint than they were in the past. And I think more important than all of that is we have a little more depth than we’ve had in the past. That allows you to hopefully be effective in these situations.”
After clinching the ACC regular-season title March 1 with a win over Syracuse at JPJ, the `Hoos didn’t play again until March 9, when they fell in overtime to Maryland in College Park.
“I think if we wanted to lose at any time, that would be the right time,” redshirt sophomore Malcolm Brogdon said, “when it really didn’t heavily impact our seeding in the ACC tournament or the NCAA, but it also did give us a wakeup call.”
Five days after losing to Maryland, Virginia returns to action Friday at the Greensboro Coliseum. In the first ACC quarterfinal, top-seeded UVa (25-6) meets No. 9 seed Florida State (19-12) at noon. The winner advances to the 1 p.m. semifinal Saturday.
The Seminoles eliminated Maryland, which was playing its final ACC game, with a last-second basket Thursday afternoon.
On its bus ride from Charlottesville to Greensboro on Thursday afternoon, UVa’s traveling party watched the Maryland-FSU game on ESPN. Assistant coach Jason Williford watched the game in person at the Greensboro Coliseum.
Before stumbling in College Park, the Cavaliers had won 13 straight games, and at least some of Bennett’s players hoped for a rematch with the Terrapins. “We’d love to play `em again,” Brogdon said Tuesday at JPJ, but, alas, the `Noles did not cooperate. And that set up the third and, presumably, final meeting between Virginia and FSU this season.
The first was Jan. 4 in Tallahassee, where Virginia won 62-50. Two weeks later at JPJ, the `Hoos beat the `Noles 78-66. In the two games, the Cavaliers trailed for a total of 113 seconds. UVa had four double-figure scorers in each game.
Asked about the Cavaliers at his postgame press conference Thursday, FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said, “I thought they might be the most unselfish team in America, where they always are playing to each other and creating easy, high-percentage shots for each other. It’s like they play without an ego but with a tremendous amount of intensity and focus.
“They’re very disciplined, and they tried to take certain spots on the floor away from you, and they’re determined. They’re sound. They don’t make very many mistakes and they don’t beat themselves. They deserve the season that they had because I felt the team really came together, and I think they’ve taught a lot of us a lesson. We all want to try to get our team to that magic level, that mental, emotional level that allows everybody to be in sync, and that’s the kind of team I think Virginia is.”
FSU is trying to play its way into the NCAA tournament. UVa is a lock for the NCAAs. Still, the `Hoos don’t lack motivation this weekend. Bennett’s record in the ACC tourney is 1-4, and the win came in his first season at the University.
The challenge, Bennett said Tuesday, is “to take that next step in the ACC tournament. What do you do differently? Hopefully we’re a better team, we’re more balanced, we’ll be ready. You’re not going to change who you are, but you really want to play well in this and advance.”
The `Hoos went 16-2 in ACC play during the regular season. Every other team in the conference lost at least four league games.
“I think we’ve proven how good we can be,” said sophomore swingman Justin Anderson, who was named the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year this week. “I think it’s about us coming out and showing exactly what we’re capable of again. We’ve played great basketball, but I think there’s more to come, and I think we have the potential to show that.”
In College Park, the Cavaliers struggled to stop Maryland, an uncharacteristic lapse for a team that prides itself on its defense. The Terps shot 47.9 percent from the floor.
“There was a hunger you could see in them that I think was better than ours,” Bennett said. “We played hard, but we weren’t as hungry … But I think we can learn from that, and now heading into postseason play, that should be exciting.
“I always say it’s great when you can learn lessons in victory, but sometimes you learn the best ones when you get beat like we did. I hope it got our attention, and we’ll have to really be hungry heading into this ACC tournament.”
Point guard London Perrantes, who made the conference’s all-freshman team, is about to make his ACC tournament debut. He’s not alone among the Cavaliers. A year ago, Brogdon and Anthony Gill traveled with the team to Greensboro, but neither played.
Brogdon, a 6-5 guard who this week was named first-team All-ACC by the league’s coaches, redshirted last season while recovering from foot surgery. That injury also forced him to miss the 2012 ACC tournament in Atlanta, near his hometown of Norcross, Ga.
“It’s astonishing that I haven’t played in one yet,” Brogdon said, “but I’m going to enjoy it with my team and try to go in and win.”
Gill, also a redshirt sophomore, is a 6-8 forward who began his college career at the University of South Carolina. He sat out last season after transferring to UVa. Gill attended high school in Charlotte, but he grew up near Greensboro in another Carolina city, High Point.
“It’s going to be fun to play in my hometown,” Gill said. “Not exactly my hometown, but 10 minutes away from my house. It feels a lot better [than last year], just to know that I can be out there with my team and help my team as much as I can.”
UVa’s feats this season include its first win at FSU since 2001, its first win at Clemson since 2007, another regular-season sweep of Virginia Tech, a Super Bowl Sunday victory at Pittsburgh, and a win over North Carolina at JPJ.
A victory Friday would probably eclipse all those accomplishments. Not since 1995, when Williford was a starting forward for then-coach Jeff Jones, has Virginia advanced to the ACC tournament semifinals.
Asked this week about the drought, associate head coach Ritchie McKay downplayed its significance. UVa’s coaches are probably more aware of it than their players, he said.
“I think what would add pressure is if our players had to wear the same shorts that J-Willy was wearing then,” McKay said, laughing.