By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The horn sounded to signal the start of the final TV timeout, and five University of Virginia basketball players headed toward the bench at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
Graduate student Devon Hall and senior Isaiah Wilkins intercepted their teammates near midcourt. Hall and Wilkins are two of the Cavaliers’ captains — redshirt junior Jack Salt is the third — and they were not pleased on this Thanksgiving evening.
With 2:21 remaining, UVA was in no danger of losing to Vanderbilt in the first game of the NIT Season Tip-Off, but what had been a 39-point lead five minutes earlier was down to 26.
“We got sloppy and complacent,” head coach Tony Bennett recalled Sunday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
And that, Hall and Wilkins told their teammates in no uncertain terms, was unacceptable.
“You don’t want to build bad habits, and I felt like that was partly what was going on,” Wilkins said Sunday night. “So you just go out there and you play like it’s 0-0. Because if you practice bad habits, it’ll show up later. That was the message.”
Bennett looked on with approval.
“There’s the old adage: A coach-led team can be good, but a player-led team has a chance to be really good — or great,” Bennett said Sunday night. “And the three captains and the experienced guys are trying to do that. [Hall and Wilkins] handled that and just said, `Tighten up and be better.’ ”
Six games into its ninth season under Bennett, Virginia is unbeaten and ranked No. 18 nationally after defeating Vanderbilt (68-42) and Rhode Island (70-55) to win the NIT Season Tip-Off.
“I felt like it was a big confidence boost,” said Wilkins, a 6-7 forward who was named the tournament’s MVP after totaling 27 points, nine rebounds, five blocked shots and three assists, while hitting 11 of 15 shots from the floor, in his two games.
“That competition was really good, and it was a different feel,” Wilkins said. “Vanderbilt had a guy like Matthew Fisher-Davis who was coming off screens and shooting it, and Rhode Island [played] more with four guards. So it was a good experience, especially for the long run.”
In March, the Wahoos will return to Brooklyn for the ACC tournament, to be held at Barclays Center, home of the NBA’s Nets, for the second straight year. For redshirt freshmen De’Andre Hunter and Jay Huff, true freshman Marco Anthony and graduate transfer Nigel Johnson, the NIT Season Tip-Off provided an opportunity to familiarize themselves with Barclays Center.
“It definitely helps you out,” Wilkins said.
“Everybody did at different times,” Bennett said. “We’ve got a unique balance. We’ve got some guys who have played a lot, and then we’ve got guys who needed the experience.”
The Cavaliers’ next test comes tonight in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. At 9 o’clock, in a game ESPN2 will televise, Virginia hosts Wisconsin (3-3) at JPJ. The Badgers play at a slower pace than either Vandy or Rhode Island.
“It’ll be a possession type of game,” Bennett said.
This will be the third time during Bennett’s tenure that UVA has faced Wisconsin in this made-for-TV event. It’s easy to see why the match-up appeals to ESPN. Bennett is a former Wisconsin assistant whose father, Dick, guided the Badgers to the Final Four in 2000. Moreover, one of Bennett’s assistants, Brad Soderberg, is a former Wisconsin head coach.
Tony Bennett and the Badgers’ current head coach, Greg Gard, are good friends and former colleagues. They were assistants together at Wisconsin for two seasons in the early 2000s under Bo Ryan, Gard’s predecessor as head coach.
“I’ve pulled for him ever since,” Bennett said. “He deserved this opportunity that he’s gotten, and he’s doing a terrific job. I see Coach Ryan’s fingerprints and some of his own fingerprints on it, that’s really good. I have the utmost respect for Coach Gard and that program.”
In two-plus seasons leading the Badgers,, Gard has a record of 45-21. Wisconsin advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen in 2015-16 and again last season.
This season, the Badgers’ losses are to Xavier, Baylor and UCLA, which were ranked No. 15, No. 22 and No. 23 nationally, respectively, at the time.
“They have some young guards and then some really great experienced players,” Bennett said. “They’ve played some really good teams, and they’ve been right there.”
Wisconsin’s rotation includes four freshmen — 6-3 Brad Davison, 6-8 Aleem Ford, 6-4 Kobe King and 6-10 Nate Reuvers — but its best player is Ethan Happ, a 6-10, 235-pound redshirt junior.
Happ is averaging 18.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, and he’s shooting 57.7 percent from the floor. The 6-10, 250-pound Salt is expected to start the game on Happ, but it will be a group effort, as always with Virginia’s Pack Line defense.
“Our post trap will be big,” Wilkins said. “That’s no secret, because Ethan Happ is arguably the best center in college basketball. We’ve just got to be ready for that and respect the other guys as well.”
After tonight’s game, UVA will play twice more before breaking for final exams. Virginia hosts Lehigh (3-3) at JPJ on Saturday afternoon and then, in a non-conference showdown on ESPNU, visits No. 19 West Virginia (6-1) on Dec. 5.
The start of ACC play is little more than a month away for the `Hoos, whose captains understand the need to set a good example for their younger teammates.
“Devon and I going out to halfcourt [during the Vanderbilt game], that was a big part of it,” Wilkins said. “There’s a lot of personalities on this team. We’re still figuring things out. Dev leads, and Jack and I get on board.”
NOTE: To purchase tickets for tonight’s game at JPJ, click here.