Bennett: Still 'a ways to go'
It’s supposed to be a rebuilding year in Charlottesville, and it looked as much at the start of the 11,500-mile road trip that took the Cavs out west. Virginia was blown out at Stanford and then embarrassed in the first round of the Maui Classic against Washington.
Three wins in their next four, including back-to-back Ws on the road at then-#13 Minnesota and Sunday night at in-state ACC rival Virginia Tech, have some in ‘Hoo Nation thinking that rebuilding might be the wrong term.
“We’re trying to get good people and good players in this program and then become as good as we can. We have a ways to go, I’m real on that,” UVa. coach Tony Bennett said Sunday night after the 57-54 Virginia win in Blacksburg over a team that had been picked in the preseason to finish as high as second in the 12-team ACC.
Virginia was slotted by the writers to finish 11th in the conference, and for good reason. The program lost last year’s leading scorer, Sylven Landesberg, who left school with two years of eligibility remaining to play professionally, and lost several other contributors either to graduation or transfer.
Bennett essentially cleaned house in his first offseason after taking over for Dave Leitao, and this year’s roster features six freshmen, five of whom are contributing points and minutes already. Joe Harris, a 6-6 shooting guard, is second on the team in scoring at 11.9 points per game, with a career-high 24 in the win at Minnesota in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. KT Harrell (7.4 ppg) and Billy Baron (5.6 ppg) have added punch to the perimeter game, while Akil Mitchell and Will Regan are adding regular minutes at least in the post.
Holdovers Mike Scott (17.1 ppg, 10.1 rebounds per game), Mustapha Farrakhan (10.1 ppg, 2.5 assists per game) and Jontel Evans (6.5 ppg, 4.5 apg) are providing what you would hope for and maybe expect from veteran leaders.
“I tell our guys for good basketball age doesn’t matter. When you tap into it, when you understand who you are as a team, and I think our team is beginning to understand that more, you’ll have a chance to compete. You have to make plays down the stretch and show some composure, and I’m pleased with our guys doing that,” Bennett said after the Tech game, but he could have been talking about both the Tech and Minnesota wins, both of which had UVa. running out to double-digit leads against experienced teams and holding off furious late rallies by the home opponents.
“I always tell them, Just keep getting better. That’s kind of our battle cry,” Bennett said. “I think they have improved. They had a good second half against Minnesota. Had a real good first half here. The second half, we did enough stuff, but certainly to get the victory is huge. I liked the improvement. Now we’ve got a home stand, and we’ve got to continue to improve and make the most of that. I thought we’ve gained some ground over the last six games in some tough settings.”
Column by Chris Graham. Chris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.