Okay, I've had time to reflect on the first game in the Tony Bennett era of Virginia basketball. The game itself was ugly; Virginia beat Longwood by the score of 85-72. Much has been made on the message boards about Virginia's inability to close out a poor Longwood team, and about Tony Bennett's post-game disappointment. To address the first, I urge Virginia fans to be cautious. Yes, the Hoos looked very ragged at times. Yes, they had trouble finishing off Longwood. Let us not forget, however, that Virginia was playing without Assane Sene, Calvin Baker, and Jamil Tucker. At least two of these guys are going to be contributors to this team. Virginia was clearly undermanned.
As for Bennett's comments:
"To give up that many points, that was discouraging," Bennett said. "The guys did finish, but there's no secret that we got a lot of work to do. It's going to be a long journey that way."
He's right. This team has a long way to go. Defensive lapses like we saw on Friday night will bury the team when they get into the heat of the ACC schedule.
There were many encouraging signs, however. First among those was the fact that, even against Longwood, 85 points is a lot of scoring. The quotes from the players continually stress the fact that Bennett's offense isn't a walk-it-up system, and they all talk about the "freedom" they have in that system. Players like Farrakhan made the not-so-subtle point that no one felt like they had any freedom to just play under Dave Leitao.
(For the record, I liked Leitao, and I thought he was fired too soon. But I'm very happy with his replacement, at this point.)
Sylven Landesberg scored 23 points while pulling down 6 rebounds. Mustapha Farrakhan tied a career high with 17 points. Mike Scott had 12 points and 13 rebounds.
Perhaps the most surprising, and encouraging, development was the emergence of freshman Jontel Evans, making his debut in a Virginia uniform. Evans was fairly lightly-recruited out of high school, and Tristan Spurlock was expected to be the gem of this incoming class. That still may be the case; we won't draw any grand, sweeping conclusions based on one game.
However, Spurlock played only 3 minutes, while Evans played half the game and made an impact immediately:
"The way (Longwood was) trapping and pressing, and his pressure on the ball helped us," said Bennett, who wasn't satisfied with his team's defensive effort after Longwood shot 55 percent from the floor in the second half and outscored U.Va. 45-36. "I thought he gave us a nice lift in the first half. He got a (steal). He was very quick and got to the lane. For a first day under the lights — for our whole team, but really for him — I thought he did a nice job."
The game wasn't televised, so I can't confirm it, but the people who were there say Evans if fast. It's starting to look like Evans' skill set is exactly what Bennett wants in a player:
"I never expected that many minutes coming in as a freshman, but I got them," Evans said. "Coach called my name and he depended on me to do what I do — that's play defense, not turn the ball over and create for other people."
Ball-hawking defense will take Evans a long way under Coach Bennett. If he can protect the ball -- and Evans had a couple of lapses in the second half -- he will play.
All in all, I was happy with the opening night victory. This team has a long way to go, sure, but I'm satisfied that they are progressing in the right direction. Bennett has to play the cards he's been dealt; we can't expect him to turn all those cards into aces overnight.