Virginia basketball vs. Miami -- 2012.01.07

I thought I'd post some photos I snapped at Saturday's Virginia - Miami game at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville (click on the individual picture to embiggen):

The offense

Over at Dear Old U.Va., Ben takes a very interesting look at Virginia's offense, and asks if they are headed in the wrong direction. I agree with his general observation that sample sizes are too small to draw any grand conclusions. The problem Tony Bennett's squad is facing is that they really don't have very many legitimate ACC weapons in the offensive fold. Sylven Landesberg is a stud, and Mike Scott is a good low-post threat, and several others complement those two...but it's tough to win in this conference without more serious threats.

That said, the team is efficient, they handle the ball well and take good shots. That goes a long way. Just ask Bob Knight, whose teams relied on just those offensive principles for years.

Can't wait for the Hokies tomorrow!

A quick peek at the ACC standings

Check out the ACC men's basketball standings here. Lots of interesting stuff, and we might as well enjoy it while we can. Of course, Virginia is in first place, the only undefeated team in the conference. There are some other interesting items in that chart, as well. Take a look at each team's record against teams ranked in the Top 25. Every team other than Miami has played at least one game against ranked teams. Of the 11 remaining teams, only one is undefeated in those games. Yep, you guessed it: Virginia, at 3-0. North Carolina has lost four games against ranked teams.

Next, take a look at the "STRK" column. How beautiful is it to see Virginia with a 9-game winning streak, and UNC with a 4-game losing streak?

Also, as mentioned in a post below, not only is UVa the only undefeated team in the ACC, but every other team besided Maryland has at least two losses. It's unreal. What's next? Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together...mass hysteria?

As badly as this season started, no one could have expected to see Virginia in this position at this point. You can go back through the archives here and see that I've been very consistent in saying that the team was improving markedly with each game and that I was excited about the direction Tony Bennett was taking this team...but no way could I have predicted this much success once ACC play started.

Okay, now it's time for the inevitable "Don't get too excited" statement. It's good advice, really. A team is never as good as it looks on it's best day, and it's never as bad as it looks on it's worst day. Virginia will likely not remain in first place throughout the season. However, anything that happens after this point is just icing on the cake. Tony Bennett has taken a cast of misfits, has-beens, and never-wases (plus Sylven Landesberg and Mike Scott), and turned them into a competitive outfit. It's so much fun to watch.

Whatever happens for the rest of this season, this team is going to be remembered fondly. They play very hard, and they are all making every effort to play the style Coach Bennett likes...and it's clear that style is going to work. Sit back and enjoy, Virginia fans. The next decade could be a lot of fun.

Team of the Week

Written before yesterday's near-catastrophe, clearly, but nice to see that ESPN's Andy Katz has named Virginia the national "team of the week" for last week:

There's no way I thought UVa would nab this honor in mid-January.

I knew coach Tony Bennett could take a collection of players, mold them into his style and maximize the talent. But he's clearly exceeding the expectations for this squad.

Virginia was projected to finish with NC State at the bottom of the ACC. Three games into conference play, the Cavaliers are the only undefeated team in the league and looking as confident as any other squad in the conference.

Virginia isn't just squeezing out wins, either. This past week Virginia beat Georgia Tech after the Yellow Jackets had beaten Duke. Georgia Tech then went on the road and beat North Carolina. Clearly, the Yellow Jackets are one of the most talented teams in the ACC. So taking out Georgia Tech, keeping the Yellow Jackets off the free-throw line (3-of-11) and playing an unselfish game was no fluke.

Virginia is getting balanced scoring from Sylven Landesberg, Mike Scott, Sammy Zeglinski and Mustapha Farrakhan. But it's the defense down the stretch that is winning games.

In the win over Miami, Virginia blitzed the Hurricanes with a 33-21 halftime lead and never looked back.

That means the Cavaliers have won three games against teams that were ranked in the AP poll at one point (UAB, Georgia Tech and Miami).

Virginia is still fragile. The Cavs could easily lose to anyone remaining on their schedule. But if the home court continues to be a staple for them, then it's not unrealistic to think they can win at least six more ACC games. If they do, the Cavs would be 9-7 in conference play and right there to get an NCAA berth. That in itself was unthinkable two months ago, a credit to Bennett and to the players who believed in him like the ones who did at Washington State. The Bennett hire was questioned, only because he came from out of the region. It was never an issue about his coaching.

I really anxious to see how UVa plays this weekend against Wake. It'll be an interesting litmus test of where this team stands right now.

A win's a win, right?

A win's a win, I guess, but this one shouldn't have been this close:

Sylven Landesberg hit a 15-footer with 2.2 seconds left Monday night, lifting Virginia to a 69-67 victory against North Carolina-Wilmington.

Virginia (12-4) won its eighth straight, its longest winning streak since the start of the 2003-04 season, but had to make a late comeback to do it.

Wilmington (6-12) trailed before a 21-4 run gave it a 61-58 lead with 3:58 to play. The visitors were ahead 64-60 with 2:57 left before Virginia rescued itself with a 9-3 run.

Jerome Meyinsse had a career-high 14 points, and Mike Scott added 12.

Okay, let's take the win (that's 12, two more than last year's team had!) and get back to ACC play. Next up: Wake Forest, in Winston-Salem. I'm thinking about going to that game. Stay tuned.

Hoos open ACC play with nice win

The Cavalier men's basketball team played perhaps their most complete game of the season this afternoon in Raleigh, NC. It couldn't have happened at a better time: the opener of the ACC season. With a victory over NC State, the Hoos are now 1-0 and in first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Sylven Landesberg had 23 points to lead the Hoos. Mike Scott had 14 points and 7 rebounds, and Sammy Zeglinski scored 10 and pulled down 8 boards.

The most encouraging aspect of the game was that Virginia really took care of the ball, much more so than we've seen out of the team all year. Zeglinski had only 1 turnover in 36 minutes of play; Calvin Baker had three assists and no turnovers. Yep, you read that right: Calvin Baker. The kid is playing under control, and he's been a big asset to the team.

Virginia was down by ten points midway through the second half, but they clamped down on defense (we haven't seen that often) and they looked determined to come back. Too frequently this season, this team has looked defeated when they got behind late in games. Today, no heads were drooped, and no one on the roster quit.

I've been saying it all season: Tony Bennett has this team pointed in the right direction. It's taken some time, but today we all saw some real evidence of the progress Virginia has made thus far.

Nice ACC debut for Coach Bennett, on the road no less. Now he needs to forget about it. In the ACC, there's always another tough game around the corner. For Bennett, that means a contest against Georgia Tech, who beat the Evil Empire today.

I hope to see JPJ full and rocking for that game on Wednesday night.

Nice win!

Wow, nice win for the Hoos over 24th-ranked UAB. That's right, the guys beat a ranked team. No, it isn't Kansas, but I'll take it. I listened to the first half of the game in the car via XM Radio; sounds like I picked the wrong half:

The biggest win of the young Tony Bennett era came just the way the first-year coach likes it. Defensively. Well, for a half at least. The Virginia men's basketball team used a solid second-half defensive effort to rally past 24th-ranked UAB on Wednesday night, 72-63, the first win over a ranked team in Bennett's short tenure.

Sylven Landesberg had 19 points and 6 rebounds, while Mike Scott made his return to the court with 10 points and 7 boards. Mustapha Farrakhan scored ten, but drew special praise from Coach Bennett for his work on the defensive end, especially against UAB's Elijah Millsap in the second half.

I keep saying it: this team keeps improving. I don't know how many they'll win this year, but they're going to be fun to watch, methinks.

Random musings on the Stanford game

Disappointing loss for the men's basketball team tonight against Stanford in the semi-finals of something called the Cancun Challenge. Some random thoughts: --It was good to get to see the team on television again. First game I've watched since last week's South Florida debacle. Despite some disappointing play, it's clear that Virginia is a different team than we saw earlier in the season.

--Down the stretch, I saw no urgency out of the Hoos. I hoped to see Sylven Landesberg get that look in his eyes, and take the team on his back. Didn't happen. There was just no urgency to win this game.

--Jeff Jones was great on the offensive end, scoring 17 points on 5-9 shooting. That's the JJ I've been waiting to see.

--Jeff Jones was terrible on the defensive end. Also terrible: Calvin Baker and Assane Sene. Just brutal. I can't believe Coach Bennett will tolerate that kind of effort much longer.

--Shot selection was much improved over last week. That was the single point that I was most encouraged about. Unfortunately, they just missed some open looks. Combine that with poor free throw shooting (14-24), and that was the difference in the game.

--Mu Farrakhan didn't play in the first half. No idea why, but it was a clear benching by Bennett, because he played (though not very well) most of the second half.

--Mike Scott had 7 points and 9 boards, and would've had more if not for foul trouble. He's really the only offensive option Virginia has in the low post, and he's a talented option at that. It's an absolute must that Scott stay out of foul trouble if Virginia hopes to be competitive.

--In the end, I'm still seeing progress out of the team. I'm very happy with where Bennett has them right now. He just doesn't have the horses to run his system. Yet.

--A final note: the game was on CBS College Sports Network, and it was, without a doubt, the worst television basketball broadcast I've ever seen.

Production values were awful. They couldn't get the score correct for the first five minutes of the game. When they showed the starting lineups, they showed pictures of five random guys instead of the Virginia starters.

Worst of all, however, the play-by-play guy (I think his name was Thad Anderson) was the single worst sports announcer I've ever seen. Geez, this guy was brutal. He got everything wrong, and clearly had not prepared for the game at all.

I think it was actually this guy:

On Saturday's Games

The differences between the football and basketball program were stark yesterday. The football team lost yet again, this time to Clemson. They did, however, give us all something to cheer about...briefly:

For one half of Virginia's contest against Clemson, the Cavalier offense did everything that Al Groh is not necessarily known for: trick plays, unconventional formations, and overall outside-the-box thinking. Jameel Sewell, Mikell Simpson, and Vic Hall all took snaps under center. A very un-Groh-like, nothing-to-lose risk gave Virginia an improbable touchdown going into halftime and the team ranked 106th nationally in scoring offense and 118th in total offense had 21 points and 233 total yards.

Unfortunately, the defense stunk all day long. Then, after a few very interesting possessions where Virginia went away from the absurdly pathetic playcalling that has marked Al Groh's tenure, the offense went back to the same old nonsense in the second half. As a result, it was three plays and out on almost every possession, it seemed, and Virginia meekly succumbed to their 8th loss of the season.

The basketball team, on the other hand, gave us a lot to be optimistic about yesterday in a 76-55 win over Oral Roberts. Mike Scott and Mustapha Farrakhan had good games, and Assane Sene played fairly effectively in his first game since returning from suspension.

The defense has been getting better every single game, which is refreshing (after some very poor defensive teams we've been forced to endure over the last decade). It's going to take even more time for Coach Bennett to install his offense, but the Hoos are improving every game on that end of the floor as well.

Wins over Rider and Oral Roberts are not ordinarily reasons for enthusiasm. Most good programs take these wins for granted. We can't think like that yet. How the Hoos are winning these games can't be taken for granted, given the state of the program.

I don't know where the program will end up, but there's no question that Bennett has started in the right direction.

Hoos lose to South Florida

Well, that was ugly. Shot selection was simply horrible, and that's been a problem with Virginia teams going back to Pete Gillen. I had hoped that would be one of the first things Tony Bennett would correct. Bennett preaches protecting the basketball; well, taking good shots within the offense is a part of that.

There were some rough individual "performances" as well, including Jontel Evans. As good as Evans looked in his Virginia debut last week, that's how bad he looked last night. He'll be fine, though.

There are positives, if you can believe it. The defense -- effort and execution -- in the first fifteen minutes was better than almost anything we saw during the Dave Leitao years. It didn't last, for any number of reasons. One is that Mike Scott is the only inside presence on the team right now, and when he went out with foul trouble, Virginia just couldn't match up on the defensive end.

Other "positives": the offense, despite poor shot selection and poor shooters, is clearly being installed. The guys move without the ball, screen, flare, make UCLA cuts...all things we rarely saw before this year. Also, the players are playing very hard. Maybe they got down on themselves a bit in the second half, and maybe the execution was sloppy fairly often, but the effort was always there.

This isn't a group of players that Bennett would've recruited to play in his system. It's a square peg in a round hole, but I still firmly believe that we will be proud of this team by the end of the season. Bennett has them headed in the right direction.

Reflections on the basketball opener

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.