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Oct. 2, 2015

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — At an hour when most of the players ordinarily would still be sleeping, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team arrived at John Paul Jones Arena in the pre-dawn darkness Friday.

At 6:30 a.m., practice for the 2015-16 season officially commenced at JPJ. High energy and, at times, careless mistakes and head-scratching turnovers marked the two-hour session that followed, but such errors were not unexpected.

“I think that everybody’s trying to get the rust off,” fifth-year senior Anthony Gill said afterward. “This is the first day we’ve really played five-on-five in so long, and that was really a good experience for us. Even though it was kind of sloppy, we got up and down, and we got to run with the team, so it was really good.”

The Cavaliers typically practice in the afternoon. But fall break begins this weekend at UVA, and head coach Tony Bennett wanted to let his players leave town as early as their class schedules permitted Friday.

“Not bad,” fifth-year senior Malcolm Brogdon said of the morning practice. “I like getting it out of the way.”

Bennett liked the change in routine, too, though neither he nor his assistant coaches liked everything they saw during practice. At one point Jason Williford, a fixture on Bennett’s staff at UVA, stopped the proceedings to make his displeasure known.

“Our defense [stinks],” Williford said.

“It really does,” Bennett added.

In a program that led the nation in scoring defense (51.4 points per game) in 2014-15, such breakdowns are not to be tolerated once the season starts.

“Here’s what it comes down to: Can the defense outlast the offense?” Bennett told his players. “That’s who we are. You guys know that.”

The ‘Hoos are coming off a season in which they repeated as ACC regular-season champions and finished 30-4 after losing in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32. Veterans back from that team include Gill, Brogdon, seniors Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey, junior London Perrantes, redshirt sophomores Devon Hall and Darius Thompson, and sophomores Isaiah Wilkins and Marial Shayok.

Expectations were high for Virginia heading into last season, and that will be case again this year. Eight of the team’s top 10 scorers from 2014-15 are back, led by All-America candidates Gill and Brogdon, and Thompson, a transfer from Tennessee, is now eligible after sitting out last season. There’s also Jarred Reuter, a 6-8 freshman who’ll add depth in the frontcourt.

The key for the players, the 6-8 Gill said, will be “holding ourselves accountable. The coaches can only tell us so much, and I think it’s up to us to bring everything together, dial it in, and bring the focus every day. We have the talent on the team, we have the experience on the team. We just need to go out there and execute, and it’s up to us to do it.”

Also critical, the 6-5 Brogdon said, will be “buying into the defense, taking it to another level than it even was last season, and being more mentally tough, having a stronger mindset going into the postseason.”

And that, of course, is where practice comes in.

“It’s like anything else,” Brogdon said of the Cavaliers’ trademark defensive prowess. “It takes repetition.”

Bennett said: “There’s a level of discipline and a mindset that needs to be re-established: established for the new guys and re-established for the other guys. And that’s just through hard work in practice, staying after guys, holding them accountable and drilling it.

“We have a saying, the defense never rests, and you can’t think, ‘OK, we got it. Now we don’t have to worry about it.’ You always have to sharpen that saw.”

UVA figures to be a consensus top-10 pick in the preseason polls, but those rankings don’t concern Bennett.

“I’ve never been one to get too wrapped up in the expectations, or even worrying too much about having these goals,” said Bennett, whose record in six seasons at Virginia is 136-64, with three NCAA tourney appearances.

“It’s just: Can we improve each day? I wish I could tell you I’ve got this 10-point plan. It doesn’t work like that. If we want to reach what we aspire to, then we have to worry about improving each day and growing. I just keep talking to our guys about a growth mindset. And when you’re doing what you need to do each day, and you can kind of check the list off, ‘OK, I’m committed to working this way,’ all those things fall into place and they happen.”

Virginia opens the season Nov. 13 against Morgan State at JPJ. Overall, Bennett noted, this will be the toughest out-of-league schedule the Cavaliers have played during his tenure as their head coach.

UVA’s non-conference opponents include George Washington (in Washington, D.C.), Ohio State (in Columbus), West Virginia (in New York City), Villanova and California.

Bennett said he believes the experience his team gained last season, when “we had the bull’s eye on us” almost from start to finish, helped prepare the Cavaliers for the challenges they’ll face in 2015-16.

“Those are great tests,” Bennett said of UVA’s marquee non-conference games. “We’ll have to be ready for those, and it’ll be exciting to be preparing for those, and I think those will be great preparation for continued improvement.”

Practice ended Friday morning with a drill in which each player put up shots from outside the 3-point arc for 80 seconds.

“Let’s see if you can shoot when you’re a little fatigued,” Bennett said.

Fatigue was evident, as some shots fell and others missed the mark. Then, after a final word from Bennett, the players scattered.

They left JPJ in high spirits. Never mind that it was raining outside. A new season beckoned, and the opener did not seem so far away to the 2015-16 Cavaliers.

“Great day to be a ‘Hoo,” Gill said.

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