Tony Bennett had never coached a team that had lost five games before Christmas until Virginia was taken to the woodshed Wednesday night by Clemson.
His ‘Hoos are now 7-5, with three losses in JPJ – two fewer than the program had recorded in the previous four seasons combined.
Naturally, Bennett was asked to address the slow start.
“Can we get this turned around? Absolutely,” Bennett said. “You pursue that, and no matter what, you just keep getting better. I can’t say, We got this, and I can’t say, No way. That’s just any coach, and I can sit up here and talk all I want, but that’s reality. We take a few days off, we refresh, we enjoy the holidays with our family and friends, and then get back to work and see where we’re at and keep pursuing.”
This is a team struggling on both ends of the floor. KenPom ranks the UVA offense 108th nationally, and the defense a middling 54th, the lowest since 2010-2011, Joe Harris’s freshman season.
Indiana transfer Armaan Franklin, expected to stretch defenses on the perimeter, after shooting 42.4 percent from three-point range a season ago, is barely over 20 percent, with high volume, this season.
East Carolina transfer Jayden Gardner is the team’s leading scorer, at 14.8 points per game, but it can be too easy for opponents to take him out of games, as Clemson did last night, when the Tigers held him to nine points on 2-of-9 shooting in the 67-50 UVA loss.
The loss wasted a sublime performance from Reece Beekman, who had a career-high 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting, just his sixth double-digit scoring night in 36 career games.
The two seven-footers splitting time at center, Kadin Shedrick and Francisco Caffaro, are too often simply absent (they combined for two points and two rebounds in 29 minutes last night), and otherwise foul-prone (Caffaro averages 7.6 fouls per 40 minutes; Shedrick 5.2).
The team shoots 31.7 percent from three, and yet, for some reason, in the last two losses – JMU and Clemson – more than half the shots from the field have been behind the arc.
And it’s prone to getting beaten on threes: Clemson was 8-of-22 from long-range last night, the fourth time that an opponent made at least eight threes in a win over the Cavaliers.
This is one of those situations where, there’s so much to fix, it can be hard to get a handle on where to start.
A reporter asked Bennett last night if he thinks he has the pieces in place to be able to get things moving in the right direction.
His answer was telling.
“You keep battling. Who knows? I’d be lying if I said, Oh, absolutely,” Bennett said. “But you just keep working. I think we’ve played good stretches of basketball and we played some poor stretches of basketball, and that’s playing itself out and obviously in conference play, this was a team that competition stepped up.
“Maybe someone’s going to emerge as guys get more experienced, but never ever I said, We’re going to find out in this room. Do we have the group of guys we can go through adversity and then keep trying to grow from it? And just keep showing up and keep knocking? That’s all you can do in these spots,” Bennett said.
Story by Chris Graham