Virginia prepares for basketball season opener

Tony BennettNational Collegiate Athletic AssociationCollege of William and Mary

Since Tony Bennett's job didn't come with a maturity accelerator, he must develop Virginia's young basketball team the old fashioned way: one day, one practice, one game at a time.

Because the NCAA and his employers frown upon eight-hour practices and unlimited skull sessions, games have arrived before his players can execute consistently what he teaches.

And because Bennett is a masochist, an optimist or the possessor of a long-term contract, the youthful Cavaliers embark on a road-heavy early schedule that's sure to produce ample heartburn.

"What's changed is just trying to get our team as ready as we can with the number of new players and inexperience," Bennett said Tuesday during a teleconference with reporters. "Trying to coach, be patient, encourage, challenge, all those things. We're still trying to establish the things that'll help us be competitive and give us a chance to win."

The challenge officially begins Friday night at John Paul Jones Arena against William and Mary. Though the Tribe lost several key players from last year's team that won at Maryland and Wake Forest and went to the NIT, its outside-in system and offensive patience make for anything but a feel-good walkover.

"They're a team that shoots the 3, runs very good offense — stuff that's hard to guard — and will challenge you," Bennett said. "Our deal is really just trying to get better in practice and then be as ready as we can in games."

The Cavaliers have six scholarship freshmen — seven total — and only three seniors. One of their few experienced players and steadying influences, junior guard Sammy Zeglinski, is sidelined until at least mid-December following knee surgery. They were picked to finish 11th in the 12-team ACC.

Bennett got a handle on the team and its progress in a pair of preseason encounters: a scrimmage against Marquette and an exhibition game against Division III Roanoke.

Marquette's quickness and athleticism exposed Virginia in some areas, he said. Though the Cavaliers handled Roanoke as expected, any game setting is valuable for the players to acclimate themselves to Bennett's system.

Bennett's calling card is defense, and he said the team isn't close to the level of effectiveness at the end of last season, particularly in the ACC tournament versus Boston College and Duke.

"What helps is the guys that have been in the program, the returners, no question they're in a different place," Bennett said, "and the new guys are, effort-wise, getting there. But there's just things you get through repetition and through time and through maturity, that you're not thinking as much and reacting. You become more of a defense that anticipates and is really team-oriented. You see the difference in the two. The guys who returned are a step ahead and the newer guys, they're just figuring it out."

Speaking of figuring it out, Bennett and his staff have some decisions ahead in terms of potential redshirting and player rotation.

He figures to play nine or 10 regularly. Any more becomes unwieldy. He plans to wait until after Thursday's practice to determine which freshman he will approach about redshirting. Even then, he said, the move is not irreversible, based on how the season unfolds.

The Cavaliers' best chance for success is effective defense and patient offense. Not a slowdown, per se, but the kind of pace that reduces possessions and keeps games close, that don't dishearten a young team.

Bennett said that in his defensive system and with such a young team, what can't be quantified often is as important as what can.

"Did you make them work to get shots?" he said. "Did they have to shoot contested shots? If they're getting transition baskets, if they're in the lane at the rim the majority of the time or getting a bunch of second-chance opportunities, you can look at that statistically.

"Did they have to earn? Did they make, for the majority of the night, tough shots? And then, when there was a breakdown, were we scrambling to cover for each other?"

The guess is that scrambling will be a recurring theme this season for the Cavaliers.

Dave Fairbank can be reached at 247-4637 or by e-mail at dfairbank@dailypress.com. For more from Fairbank, read his blog at dailypress.com/fromthetarpit.

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