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ACC InDepth | Can Cavs turn the corner under Bennett?

Before leaving, former UVa. basketball coach Dave Leitao did the program a big favor. He convinced four-star recruit Tristan Spurlock to stay in the fold.

“I was to the point where I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know if I was going to stay, I didn’t know if I was going to go. I have lots of friends from the Boo Williams team who definitely were trying to get me to go to their schools, and that definitely was something I was looking forward to,” said Spurlock, a 6-7, 215-pound small-forward sharpshooter who had been recruited by Leitao and his staff for three years before committing to the ‘Hoos before his senior season at Word of Life Christian Academy in Woodbridge.

But in the end, when everything was going down with Leitao, who resigned in March after Virginia posted its worst season in 40 years, “Coach Leitao called and told me to wait,” Spurlock said.

“He told me not to get out of my letter of intent. A lot of other people, family and friends, were telling me to get out. A lot of people in the organization told me I should get out. But he definitely didn’t. He told me to stay. He told me to wait for the new coach, to see who it was going to be,” Spurlock said.

And Spurlock said he is “glad” that he took Leitao’s advice. The reason: new coach Tony Bennett, whose upbeat personality is both infectious and a breath of fresh air at the John Paul Jones Arena in contrast to Leitao’s well-known moodiness.

“He’s been an immediate impact on the team. He’s changed our whole mindset. We’ve been working hard for him, and we’re all looking forward to the season,” said redshirt second-year point guard Sammy Zeglinski, one of several Cavs who spent time in Leitao’s doghouse.

“Coach Bennett is a mellow guy,” said 2009 ACC rookie of the year Sylven Landesberg, a Leitao favorite. “When he has to get in you, he’ll get in you, and as a player, you have to respect that. Your coach can’t just be complimenting you all the time. There’s time when you’re messing up, and he has to get in you, and we all respect that. But he will never embarrass you. He will never yell at you for no reason. He’ll call you over and tell you, You’re doing this wrong, you’re doing that wrong, try to do this next time. He respects all of us, and we have the same respect for him.”

The Landesberg-Spurlock-Zeglinski troika are the building blocks for the renaissance of Virginia basketball under Bennett, who came most recently from Washington State but more from a basketball history that had him learning the nuances of the game at the feet of his father, legendary Midwest college coach Dick Bennett.

“In our system, I expect, quite honestly, my ones, twos and threes to all be able to handle the ball, to all be very complete. So they almost have to be interchangeable,” said Bennett, describing the approach to offensive basketball honed by his father in his years at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wisconsin and then Washington State.

The Bennett system relies on screens and movement off the ball to create openings and open shots. Which is why there is such a premium on ballhandling by his perimeter players.

“All of those guys at times will be playing like a point guard, playing like a guy without the ball in his hands, and then I really look at matchups defensively. Can this guy lock on a point guard defensively and pester the ball? That’s as significant to me or more sometimes than the offensive side of the ball, because I want very complete perimeter players,” Bennett said.

As much as fans will be watching closely the motion offense, Bennett will be watching what happens on the other side of the court. UVa. was 12th in the ACC in scoring defense and 12th in field-goal percentage defense in 2008-2009.

The mindset of locking in and pestering opponents is one difference in the Bennett approach. A nuance, from fourth-year forward Jamil Tucker, is the thinking on where to funnel offensive players trying to go baseline. “Coach Leitao wanted to force baseline, no middle, but with Coach Bennett, we force middle, no baseline. That’s something we have to get used to on the defensive end,” Tucker said.

Tucker was another who ended up in the Leitao doghouse for stretches. He sought out Bennett after the new hire was announced last spring to feel him out, “to know what was expected of me, what I needed to be doing and what I needed to work on.”

The 6-9, 240-pound three-point savant was sold on the new coach right away. “Coach has stressed to us that if we’re not out there taking care of our assignments that we will be on the bench. That’s the same with every coach. But Coach Bennett does encourage us to know that we’re going to make mistakes, it’s how do we come back from them,” Tucker said.

Coming back from the 10-18 ’08-’09 campaign that featured an early loss at home to Liberty and a last-place finish in the ACC followed by a flameout in the opening round of the ACC Tournament is first and foremost on the minds of those working daily in JPJ.

“Last year was tough. I would say we went through the worst of the worst,” Landesberg said. “Finishing last in the ACC, lost our first game in the ACC Tournament, we lost our coach. So we all learned a lot from that through the hardships. We don’t want any of that to happen again. Just the feeling, it was a horrible feeling. So we’ve all bought into Coach Bennett’s concepts on defense and offense, and I think the team is rolling now. I think we’re all ready to go, and I think everybody is better individually.”

“I feel like going into each game we should feel a real chance to make it competitive. We’re going to focus on the defensive end, value the ball, make good shot selections, and see where it goes from there,” Zeglinski said.

“We’ve just got to take it on a daily basis, try to get better every day. A lot of the guys came back from last year, so our cohesiveness is pretty good right now, actually,” Zeglinski said.

Eight of the team’s top nine scorers from a year ago return. Add Spurlock and first-year point guard Jontel Evans to the mix, and it’s clear that there’s plenty of talent in the pipeline. How quickly players recruited to play Leitao’s much more up-tempo game can adapt to the more deliberative offense and hardcore defense principles of Bennett is the million-dollar question.

Not surprisingly, the outlook for 2009-2010 with all this flux isn’t what you’d call rosy. Rivals has UVa. at 11th in the 12-team ACC heading into the preseason

“Do I want to win? Absolutely. I’ve said it to a few of you guys before,” Bennett said. “I’m focused on what we said – qualitative versus quantitative. We have to be so geared on doing things the right way and building. I have a vision for the long haul. That’s what I want. So if there’s short-term success, great. But this is a vision for the long haul, what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to establish. And I just want to see us do things well.

“I’m realistic. There’s some ground to cover, and we’ve got work to do, and we’ll see how that progresses,” Bennett said.

The mindset of that Tristan Spurlock kid who had the chance to leave but didn’t will say a lot about how quickly that progress comes.

“My biggest thing is, Coach Bennett is a defensive coach, and I’m an offensive-minded player. I’m going to need to learn how to play defense sooner or later before I can do anything. So I’m very glad that I did stay, because that’s one thing that he preaches more than anything else, is defense. Stopping your man, staying in front, getting in the gap, talking, not getting too high, getting low enough so you can still slide, box out, being tough, being physical. And that’s one thing I really want to do,” Spurlock said.

– Story by Chris Graham

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