CHARLOTTESVILLE — Never mind that his team had just beaten an opponent ranked in the top 10 nationally. Tony Bennett‘s irritation was palpable Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena, and his players and his staff noted his displeasure.
“It’s been building,” assistant coach Jason Williford said Friday.
This is Bennett’s seventh season as men’s basketball coach at the University of Virginia, where his teams have been known for their defensive prowess in recent years. His latest group, though, has been more prone to lapses, and its defensive shortcomings were apparent Tuesday against No. 8 Miami.
The 13th-ranked Cavaliers came away with a 66-58 victory, but the Hurricanes, especially point guard Angel Rodriguez, repeatedly drove into the lane in the second half against a defense, the Pack-Line, designed to prevent such penetration.
“The fact that the ball got to the paint, and Rodriguez was in the middle of our defense so much, I think that just drove [Bennett] nuts,” Williford said.
Virginia is not the only team, of course, that will struggle against Rodriguez. Still, Bennett said Saturday, the Wahoos can’t use that as an excuse.
Rodriguez “was really good,” Bennett said, “but we [regularly] play against good guards in this league, and you have to figure out ways to make it harder. And that’s the part you continue to work on.
“That was my message [to the team]: We’ve got work to do, and it’s a process. Again, Miami puts pressure on you with their personnel, but there are a number of teams in our league that have such explosive, talented players. So you have to, as we say, try to seal the defense or tie it tighter, so people can’t just get to the rim or the paint on you as easily as they did.”
Overall, Bennett said, he considers the Miami game “a step in the right direction. I thought we were more patient offensively and tried to wear down their defense a little bit with good shot selection and then hard moving and cutting.
“Defensively, we rebounded better. But Miami did a pretty good job of getting in the paint.”
And so the `Hoos focused on defense in practice Thursday, Friday and Saturday, work they hope will pay dividends Sunday. At 6:30 p.m., in an ACC game that will be shown on ESPNU, Virginia (13-3, 2-2) meets Florida State (11-5, 1-3) at the Donald L. Tucker Center in Tallahassee.
The Seminoles, who dropped their first three ACC games, bounced back to win 85-78 at NC State on Wednesday night.
“It was just a matter of time,” said Williford, who prepared the scouting report on the `Noles. “They’ve got a ton of talent, especially on the perimeter. They’ve got a good mix of really good young guys and experience.”
Also, Williford pointed out, FSU’s first three ACC opponents were North Carolina, Miami and Clemson, “so those are three tough games.”
In 6-5 Malik Beasley (17.1 ppg) and 6-7 Dwayne Bacon (16.6 ppg), FSU has two of the nation’s premier freshmen. In 6-4 Xavier Rathan-Mayes, the Seminoles have one of the top sophomores.
Rathan-Mayes, who scored at least 30 points in three games as a freshman, is averaging a modest 12.1 points this season, but he has a team-high 89 assists. No other Seminole has more than 33.
“He’s taken on the facilitator’s role,” Williford said. “He’s looking to get those two explosive wings” — Beasley and Bacon — “involved and sort of run the team. Now, when those guys are off and they’re missing and the offense is a little stagnant, he then takes the onus upon himself to go and score. Obviously he’s a capable scorer, but to his credit, he’s being more of a point guard for this team than a scoring 2-guard.”
As is often the case, FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton has the ACC’s tallest team. Michael Ojo, a 7-1, 304-pound senior, is injured and has yet to play this season, but the Seminoles still have 7-3 senior Boris Bojanovsky and 7-4 freshman Chris Koumadje, as well as 6-9 Jarquez Smith and 6-8 Montay Brandon.
Florida State’s post players are not prolific scorers, but their size still causes problems for opponents.
“You’ve got to finish over them, obviously,” Williford said, “but they also put you in predicaments with their offense, because you’ve got to help on ball screens, and then they just lob it up to those big guys.
“We’ve got to be good up front on the ball screen, at the point of attack, and we’ve got to be good behind it, not letting those bigs roll to the rim.”
The Cavaliers have won five consecutive games against FSU, including two in 2014-15.
“I think it’s been a combination of two things: our offense, just being patient offensively, and then defensively we’ve had some good athleticism and size ourselves that could match some of [FSU’s height],” Williford said. “And we’ve had a good group. We’ve just been fortunate, but Leonard’s teams always play good defense. And this year he’s got some really explosive offensive guys.”
The `Noles, who are averaging 80.9 points per game, love to run. To win Sunday night, Virginia will have to handle FSU’s ball screens and consistently contest 3-point shots, Williford said, “but none of that is as important as transition defense.
“I saw some kind of stat where they’re averaging almost 24 points a game in transition points. So we’ve got to get back and not allow them to get easy ones, and then play in the halfcourt.”
About 48 hours after their game with FSU concludes, the Cavaliers will host Clemson at JPJ on Tuesday night. The Tigers (12-6, 5-1) will be more rested. They played Saturday afternoon in Greenville, N.C., where they stretched their winning streak to five games with an impressive victory over Miami.
“It’s not a balanced schedule that way,” Bennett said, “but you just make the most of the opportunities you have to work on things that need to be addressed, to rest when you can, and when there are quick turnarounds, you do what you can.”