Hunter to hunted: Can UVA basketball handle expectations?

uva basketballUVA basketball was a preseason Top 25 team this time last year. That seemed like high expectations for a program that had won just one NCAA Tournament game in 19 years.

Um, no. High expectations are coming off an ACC regular-season title, an ACC Tournament championship, a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a run to the Sweet Sixteen and a Top 10 preseason ranking.

It’s easy to tell people, We know, we got this, we still have to work hard. It’s another thing to not let the accolades get to your heads and keep you from doing what you need to do to get back to the top.

“The fan base all offseason has been telling us what a great job we did last year. It’s nice to hear, but we’ve got to put all that aside, because it’s a whole new year. Everyone’s 0-0 at this point. What we did last year doesn’t matter,” junior center Mike Tobey said, echoing the message that UVA coach Tony Bennett has been preaching to his team all offseason.

“I think our guys, the ones that are returning, have those experiences to draw from. We’ve used the example and I’ve used it with you guys before, it comes down to the horses. You put the blinders on and you take the step in front of you,” said Bennett, who joked that the best thing about the success the team had last season was “the free desserts I’ve gotten because of it at the restaurants.”

“To see the joy that it’s brought to people that have been, I always say, true fans of Virginia athletics and Virginia basketball, to see how much it’s meant to them, that’s rewarding, that’s gratifying. To see people come up and say I was there for this many years or when they did it back in this year, and it was there when you did some things and to see how emotional it makes them when we go to speak at the Virginia Athletic Foundation tours.Not even so much of that success, but with the young men and how it’s been done that’s made a difference to a lot of people. So that part has been gratifying to an extent,” Bennett said.

But last year was last year. That is the mantra that Bennett is trying to ingrain in his players’ heads.

“You’re defending nothing. You get as good as you can. If that takes you past it, to it, great. If it doesn’t, great. You max out. That is the thing,” Bennett said.

First-team All-ACC guard Malcolm Brogdon is helping set that tone for his teammates.

“Coming to practice every day is actually humbling playing for Coach Bennett, because no matter who you are, no matter what recognition you’ve gotten, he brings you back down to earth every day in practice,” Brogdon said. “When you make a mistake, it’s as bad a mistake as anybody else on the floor, and he lets you know it. So I just don’t think it’s our nature in this program to get too high on ourselves or too low.”

Junior guard Justin Anderson, the ACC Sixth Man of the Year in 2013-2014, said the key is to “realize that any team can be beaten on any given night.”

“So the second we rely on the fact that we’ve been there before is the night that we can easily end up getting beaten by any team in the country,” Anderson said. “We have to make sure that we continue to take the same steps that we did last year, by taking it one game at a time and approaching each opponent with high effort, high intensity and execution.”

If one lesson was internalized from 2013-2014, it was that one – that playing at a high level is something that comes with effort and hard work, day in and day out.

“As a team, we know, we’ve been there. We know what it takes to get to the NCAA Tournament,” Tobey said. “We’ve got to take what we learned, which is how hard you have to work, how nothing is given to you. Every day, you have to work.

“We’re not the most talented team. We’re not going to out-talent anyone. We don’t have all these McDonald’s All-Americans coming in. What we have to do is outwork teams. We need to take that same approach as we did last year. If we do that, we’ll have a successful year,” Tobey said.

– Column by Chris Graham

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