By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On Dec. 30, at John Paul Jones Arena, Davidson shot 50 percent from the floor in the second half against UVa. Four nights later, in Coral Gables, Fla., Miami did the same against Virginia.
The third-ranked Cavaliers won both of those two games to remain unbeaten. But for a program whose trademark under head coach Tony Bennett has been unyielding man-to-man defense, the breakdowns are worrisome.
“Defensively, we’ve got to step up,” assistant coach Jason Williford said after practice Tuesday at JPJ.
Never mind that Virginia still ranks second nationally in scoring defense (50.8 ppg). Bennett made clear in practice Monday and Tuesday that the lapses are unacceptable.
“I think because our offense is a little more efficient than last year at this time, our guys have forgotten who they are a little bit, and that’s been the focus [since the Miami game],” Williford said.
“Obviously Davidson showed some flaws in our defense, and then Miami, being able to come back in the second half and make that a double-overtime game. So we’ve got to buckle down and tighten up defensively, and I think it starts with getting back in transition and then being able to guard the ball and keep the ball out of the lane. And then improving our ball-screen defense. Teams have found some holes, so we’ve got to get better.”
Wednesday night brings an opportunity for the Wahoos to return to form. At 7 o’clock, in a game ESPN2 will televise, UVa (13-0 overall, 1-0 ACC) hosts NC State (11-4, 2-0) at JPJ, where a near-capacity crowd is expected.
The Wolfpack, coming off an 18-point win over Pittsburgh, starts three guards, and they figure to test the Cavaliers’ defense.
“We’ve seen that actually in the last two games we’ve played,” Bennett said Monday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference, “and when you’re playing against guards that are complete and that can certainly put pressure on you, it challenges your perimeter defense, and we haven’t done a great job the last two games of controlling the perimeter.”
Redshirt junior Trevor Lacey, a 6-3 transfer from Alabama, leads the Pack in scoring, at 17.2 points per game. Redshirt senior Ralston Turner, who began his college career at LSU, averages 13.1 points, and sophomore Anthony “Cat” Barber, a graduate of Hampton High, averages 12.2 points and a team-best 3.7 assists.
“He’s not a great 3-point shooter, but [he’s dangerous with] his midrange jumper, his pullup,” Williford said of Barber, “and at getting to the rim, getting to the free-throw line. He’s shooting a ton of free throws, playing under control, playing with a lot of confidence.”
Lacey, who’s shooting 43.3 percent from 3-point range, “can score at every level,” Williford said. “He can fly off screens, he can use ball screens, he can go one-on-one. He’s good.”
Turner has made a team-high 35 treys, and he “doesn’t need much space at all,” Williford said. “His range is as soon as he crosses midcourt. Their backcourt’s really good, and then they’ve got some physical inside guys. It’s going to present a challenge, so I hope we’re ready.”
State won its first six games before losing 66-61 to Purdue in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
“I think they were still trying to figure out who exactly they were,” Williford said. “But I think they know who they are now. They’ve got some really good guards, they can shoot the 3, and their post players are coming around.”
Since falling at Purdue, NC State has won five of eight. Its other losses were to Wofford (55-54), West Virginia (83-69) and Cincinnati (76-60). In ACC play, the Pack has defeated Wake Forest and Pitt.
“The Wofford loss could have easily been a State win,” Williford said. “They lost at the buzzer. And then they played two really good teams in Cincinnati and West Virginia who just pressure you and kind of create some chaos, and that’s hard to handle. But they’re a good team.”
So, clearly, is Virginia. The `Hoos blew an 18-point halftime lead Saturday night, however, and needed two overtimes to defeat Miami 89-80.
After the game, Bennett credited the Hurricanes for their inspired comeback. “But we gotta be better than that,” Bennett said. “You gotta play every possession in ACC basketball against quality talent, and that [Virginia did not do so] was frustrating. We’ve got to improve.”
In 2013-14, Virginia earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament after sweeping the ACC titles. Most of the key players from that team are back this season, so the Cavaliers are not unaccustomed to the glare of the national spotlight.
Still, Bennett continually reminds his players that if they allow people to put them on a pedestal, it’s “easy to get knocked off the pedestal,” he said.
“I think that’s a little bit of a trap … It’s hard to know how young men input everything and how it affects them. So you do your best to let them understand what’s right.”
This is Bennett’s sixth team at UVa, where his record is 119-60. His latest group has won with balance and depth. Some games junior swingman Justin Anderson leads the `Hoos, some games it’s redshirt junior guard Malcolm Brogdon or junior center Mike Tobey, others it’s redshirt junior big man Anthony Gill or sophomore point guard London Perrantes.
Against Miami, Brogdon (12.9 ppg) fouled out for the first time in his college career, picking up his fifth personal with 2:23 left in the second half. But clutch performances from Anderson (16 points), Tobey (14 points), senior big man Darion Atkins (career-high 12 rebounds), freshman swingman Marial Shayok (career-high nine points) and Perrantes (career-high 26 points, game-high eight assists) carried the Cavaliers to their first-ever win at Miami.
“That’s what’s good about this team, or has been,” Bennett said Monday. “Different guys are stepping up at different times.”
Perrantes, who shot 51.2 from 3-point range in ACC play as a freshman, came into the Miami game having made only 5 of 21 attempts from beyond the arc this season. Even so, Perrantes said, he felt confident the extra work he’d put in over the holiday break with associate head coach Ritchie McKay and several teammates would pay dividends.
He was right. Perrantes made a career-best five 3-pointers (in nine attempts) against the Hurricanes.
“We do a lot of extra stuff after practice and things like that, and Coach McKay told me it’s pretty much all mental,” Perrantes said Saturday night. “Just feel like you’re confident, know that you’re one of the best shooters on the floor at all times, and they’ll go in eventually. And he told me to keep shooting, and that’s what I did.”
Against Davidson, he missed his only two 3-point attempts and was 1 for 7 from the floor overall. But Perrantes’ shot selection was good, Bennett said, and it “just seemed like he had a good balance. You don’t want to force, but you want to take the ones that are there. You’ve got to have a feel for that, and London is typically not a guy who forces.”
After hosting NC State, Virginia returns to the road to face ACC leader Notre Dame (15-1, 3-0) on Saturday night in frigid South Bend, Ind. The Cavaliers are home against Clemson (8-5, 0-1) on Jan. 13.
The Miami game, Williford said, served as a reminder of how difficult it can be to win on the road in the ACC.
“No question,” he said. “We always say you gotta protect your home court and try to sneak a few road wins, and luckily we got that one down there. But it’s life in the league. That’s what league play is all about.”