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.

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.

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.