Virginia comes to town tonight in the first game of the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge. In addition to our preview, Kris Wright, editor of TheSabre.com, answered a few questions about the Cavaliers and what we might expect from them.
FTB: Teams have been shooting (and hitting) a lot of threes against the Cavs so far this year. Washington, in particular, had a field day recently. What’s going on with the Virginia perimeter defense?
TS: Tony Bennett’s preferred defensive system is the Pack-Line, a sagging man-to-man defense. The idea, of course, is to cut down driving lanes, prevent penetration, and force jump shots. The problem there is that if you force jump shots and leave them as uncontested jump shots, then Division I players are good enough to make you pay. Coach Bennett said Washington was basically playing H-O-R-S-E out there because the Cavaliers weren’t closing out and contesting shooters. Long story short: the Pack-Line requires controlled but aggressive close-outs on shooters to force players to hit contested shots. The problem so far is the close-outs haven’t been good enough as a team with 6 freshmen and 1 sophomore in the rotation learns how to execute the system better.
FTB: It’s a young season, so what’s the feeling in Charlottesville surrounding the team going into the 2010-11 year?
TS: The feeling among TheSabre.com fans is that the freshmen are showing a lot of promise, but that they still play like freshmen at times. The hope is that the growing pains of an early season stretch of road games – Stanford, Maui Invitational, Minnesota all in a row – will help them grow up fast and be competitive in ACC play. No one is expecting a team predicted to finish in 11th place in the ACC preseason polls to rise up and finish at the top of the standings, but there is genuine hope that the team can make a run toward the middle of the pack and a postseason bid of some kind.
FTB: Coach Tony Bennett is in his second year at Virginia. What’s he done so far to try to turn the Cavaliers into a legitimate ACC threat?
TS: Coach Bennett’s philosophy on rebuilding a program basically looks like the following. Come in and let the first year belong to the current players, find out who fits and who doesn’t, see what the program needs for the league it is in, and prepare to build from there. Year two requires bringing in a big recruiting class – six freshmen on scholarship this year – and starting to build the new team toward long-term success with emphasis on your defensive and offensive systems. Year three is expected to feature a smaller class with targeted needs to build depth on the roster and to create year-to-year growth of your systems. After that, you’re hoping to consistently reap the benefits of your “long-term” planning.
FTB: If Virginia wants to go into Minneapolis and take down the Gophers, what team strengths will they have to rely on?
TS: The games UVa has won this year have featured solid and inspired team defense. It all starts from there for Bennett teams. If the Virginia players are scrambling around, covering each other in help defense, and so on then they’re having a good night and that can carry over to the offensive end. The Cavaliers aren’t a lot different than a Tubby Smith team in that way. On offense, the team seems to feed off how senior Mike Scott plays – when he’s active, not necessarily scoring and dominating but just consistently active, then the Hoos look like a decent basketball team.
FTB: Building on that, who are the playmakers for the Cavs? Who will Minnesota have to key on?
TS: Mike Scott. Teams so far this season are frequently doubling the senior forward in the post and making the younger players make the plays off of that to win games. Scott can get passive if he doesn’t feel like his efforts are being rewarded so it’s important for the perimeter players to get him touches and make plays off of any double teams. Joe Harris probably has been the most consistent freshman to date for UVa, but he has had some foul trouble problems too. Keep an eye on the production of KT Harrell and Billy Baron too – when one of those two freshmen or both are on offensively, it changes the game on that end of the floor for Virginia.
FTB: How do you see the rest of the season shaping up for Virginia?
TS: Hopefully, it’s a growth process. Steady improvement through the exam break in December followed up with a competitive move up the standings in the ACC during the 2011 portion of the schedule would be great. I’m not sure it’s possible, but an NIT berth or better for this team would be huge for the program in the second year of Coach Bennett’s tenure.