CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett, dissatisfied with his players’ effort, halted a defensive drill Friday afternoon. It won’t be the last time that happens as the UVa men’s basketball team prepares for the 2014-15 season.
“Do it again,” Bennett barked. “If you’re going to do it, do it right.”
Friday marked the official start of practice for Division I teams, and a few minutes before 2 p.m., the Cavaliers gathered at midcourt at John Paul Jones Arena.
In no uncertain terms, Bennett, the reigning ACC coach of the year, told his players that the Wahoos would be a blue-collar team again this season. He also stressed one of the cornerstones of his coaching philosophy.
“We will get back and make teams play against a set defense,” Bennett said. “We will be a great transition defense team. That’s a non-negotiable.”
Moments later, the players scattered to various parts of the court, around which six goals were spread. Time to work.
“Let’s go, fellas! First day back!” shouted junior Anthony Gill, clapping his hands for emphasis.
UVa, which has won 18 consecutive ACC games at JPJ, is coming off one of the greatest seasons in the program’s history. The Cavaliers won 30 games, swept the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen before losing to Michigan State.
Along the way, they endeared themselves to a fan base that’s eagerly awaiting the start of a new season. The `Hoos have smashed the program’s record for season tickets, and the players can sense the growing excitement about hoops around Grounds and in the local community.
“Absolutely,” junior swingman Justin Anderson said Friday. “You feel it. Everywhere we go, we hear about it. We go to the football games and we have fans. We go to soccer games and we have fans, and they’re telling us how much they can’t wait for the season.
“As great as it is, to bring that energy back, like from the Ralph Sampson era, we have to realize that we still haven’t achieved what we want to achieve. We had a great year, and I think we all have done a great job putting it behind us. Our new guys are coming in hungry and ready to work for something different, and we just gotta make sure we go out and continue to prove that Virginia basketball is played a certain way.”
Bennett, who’s in his sixth year at UVa, wants his players to be “always thankful, never satisfied,” he said. “We were so thankful for what happened last year and thankful for this opportunity, but not satisfied.”
What will not be tolerated, Bennett said, is “basking in reflected glory,” a phrase from his college days at Green Bay. The 2013-14 season, however special it might have been, is history.
“So if we’ve got guys who are looking in the rear-view mirror, it’s going to be a shock to their system awful quick,” Bennett said. “And I don’t believe we do. I think they were appreciative and thankful for what happened, and I think even how it ended, knowing they were pretty close to taking another step [in the NCAA tournament], motivated them in the right way, and that’s all you can ask for.”
UVa must replace Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, now in NBA training camps with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets, respectively, but back are sophomore London Perrantes, juniors Malcolm Brogdon, Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte, Gill and Anderson, and senior Darion Atkins, as well as Devon Hall, who redshirted as a freshman in 2013-14. The veterans have trained extensively with strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis since the end of last season.
“I think all of the returners have improved in one or two areas, whether it’s physically, with their strength, or they look a little more skilled,” Bennett said.
“I think they have put in the time, which I would have expected, so I think they’re all improved, and as we get into more competition and up-and-down stuff, we’ll see it. But with some of the guys, you notice it first physically, just by looking at them and watching them move. So that part was good. That’s a credit to Coach Curtis.”
“I think they’re all wired to be good team players,” Bennett said.
While summer school was in session and in the weeks leading up to the official start of practice, the coaching staff was allowed to work with the players for two hours each week. Those were usually 40-minute, 45-minute or one-hour sessions. And so Friday’s practice, which lasted nearly two-and-a-half hours, was memorable for the freshmen.
“This is the longest practice I’ve ever been a part of,” Stith said, smiling. “Practices were long at Oak Hill [Academy], but it just wasn’t as intense. Playing against guys like Justin and Malcolm, and I had to switch and guard Mike Tobey for a minute there, playing against these guys for two, three hours, it’s tough, it’s challenging, but I love it.”
Bennett said: “That’s college. You have to learn how to play that hard and sustain it, and that’s a new thing for the first-years, for the most part.”
Does he design the first practice to make a point with the newcomers?
“Absolutely,” Bennett said. “I think they need to understand the intensity, how hard they have to play. Sometimes you even get after them a little bit in front of their peers.”
The players work out together year-round. Still, said the 6-6 Anderson, who at 227 pounds is two pounds above his target weight, when practice officially starts it’s “a different vibe,” one “you lick your chops for.”
At the end of recent workouts, Anderson recalled, `We’d say, `One more, one more, Coach. Let’s go for five more minutes.’ We just wanted more, and I think that describes this year’s team. It’s a hungry team. And now that the coaches are able to assist us and work with us [more], it’s an amazing feeling that we love.”
Associate head coach Ritchie McKay and assistant coaches Ron Sanchez and Jason Williford have been with Bennett since his first season at UVa, and the staff’s stability is among the reasons the program has shown steady improvement.
Bennett took over a team that in 2008-09 had won 10 games. The Cavaliers finished 15-16 in 2009-10, 16-15 in 2010-11, 22-10 (with a trip to the NCAA tournament) in 2011-12, 23-12 in 2012-13 and 30-7 last season.
For the coaches, the start of practice allows them more flexibility in their teaching methods. When the team is limited to two hours per week, Bennett said, it “goes so quick, and that clock runs.”
Now, Bennett said, the coaches can “slow it down, take longer to explain things and not worry about being up against the clock. I can say, `Hey, do you understand this? Let’s take a few more reps to make sure you understand.’ ”
Not surprisingly, there were occasional defensive breakdowns Friday afternoon, and the coaches used those lapses as teaching points.
“Stop yielding,” Bennett said at one point. “You guys yield when you get tired.”
Virginia opens the season Nov. 14 against JMU in Harrisonburg, and much work remains for a team that figures to be ranked in the top 15 when the first polls are released.
“We’ve got to realize how hard it is to be good defensively,” Bennett told his players.
The Cavaliers’ second practice is Saturday afternoon. The first ended with Anderson going 5 for 5 and Gill 4 for 5 from the free-throw line, marksmanship that drew applause from their teammates.
“It was a great first day,” Stith said.
REMINDER: A Meet the Team event and open house for the Virginia men’s and women’s basketball programs will be held Sunday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at JPJ. It’s open to the public, and there is no admission fee.