Tony Bennett: Virginia still has a lot of work to do

tony bennettIf you didn’t know the final score, you’d think from listening to Virginia coach Tony Bennett that his team had just lost by 20 points.

Turns out, the 13th-ranked Cavs had just posted their third win over a team currently ranked in the Top 10 of the USA Today Coaches Poll.

Bennett, for what it’s worth: not impressed.

“To be honest with you, we never took control,” Bennett said after Virginia had closed out a 66-58 win over #8 Miami Tuesday night. “We took a step in the right directions in terms of our physicality, our mindset and our patience, but we have a lot of work to do. We have a ways to go, but we’ll just keep grinding away. That’s how we do it. “

This one was a beaut if you’re a Virginia fan used to grind-it-out wins, maybe only the third of that nature for the Cavs this year, the others being the ugly road win at Ohio State and the overtime slugfest at home with Cal that turned into an improbable one-point win.

The other Top 10 wins, over West Virginia (70-54 on Dec. 8) and Villanova (86-75 on Dec. 19) were much more aesthetically pleasing, as was the win over 2015 ACC Tournament champ Notre Dame (77-66 on Jan. 2).

Virginia entered this one on an uncharacteristic two-game losing streak that was pockmarked by awful defense – with both Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech scoring more than a point per possession, an unusual level of efficiency against a Virginia team that hangs its hats on the defensive end.

Miami, which entered the game as the 15th-most efficient offensive unit in the country, per, never could get on track offensively Tuesday night, shooting 42.0 percent from the floor, nearly 8 percent off its season average, and scored just .951 points per possession on the night, well off the 1.157 points per possession that the ‘Canes had put up coming in.

“Our guys, we normally shoot better than 42 percent and 27 percent from three,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “We needed to get better production from our team, and we only had three guys in double figures. Normally, we have four and sometimes five. And our bench, which has been very productive for us, didn’t give us a whole lot tonight.”

But that was Larranaga talking about how Virginia took his team out of its game.

Back to Bennett, who wasn’t as pumped as you would expect a coach to be after his team ended a two-game losing skid with a win over the eighth-ranked team in the nation.

“I thought we did an ok job. We just have to keep coming,” Bennett said. “We are a work in progress, and you always are defensively, but it’s a mindset and we have to keep working.

“They missed sometimes more than we stopped them. But, we had enough stops and big plays,” Bennett said. “Again, I am very thankful for the win, please don’t mistake that, because I know we needed it, but I know what’s looking us in the eye, and I’m realistic.”

It wasn’t just a show for the reporters, if you’re thinking it was just a show for the reporters.

“We were happy to just get the win, but then when coach came into the locker room, he was definitely intense about the defensive end,” senior center Mike Tobey said. “He is right, because we cannot get comfortable. We got comfortable in the past, and we dropped two games, so we cannot get comfortable.”

The assessment from Tobey there is spot on. Virginia really has yet to put together a complete 40-minute game all season long, getting by even in the wins over top opponents with a few minutes here and a few minutes there.

That approach was the Cavs’ undoing in the road losses at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, and even with the metrics suggesting that they were able to right the ship Tuesday, it’s also clear that there is, as Bennett suggests, still a lot of work to do.

“He just said that we played poorly defensively, especially with their guards, they’re quick. We all knew that, but yeah, he was definitely upset about how we played defense,” Tobey told reporters.

Bennett had been asked minutes earlier if he just needed to accept that this team isn’t as good defensively as Bennett’s last two teams, particularly last year’s group, which led the nation in defensive efficiency.

“No, we can’t accept that as an identity. You accept that, and you’re done,” Bennett said. “You have to fight to make it hard. We didn’t do a good job with stops, and again they are absolutely very hard to guard. We have had trouble with that, but we have to clean things up and get better.

“I’m the wrong guy if we get that attitude, because it won’t work. Our guys have to fight, and we’ll figure it out. Thank goodness the crowd was fired up, but our guys have to understand that if we have any notion of good we got it, then we are on the wrong path. Our guys have to keep fighting to get better and better.

“We are going on the road next and we haven’t been good on the road, so we need to take another step to figure out what we’re made out of.”

Bennett was referring to Virginia’s next game, on the road on Sunday at Florida State. UVA is just 1-3 in true road games this season, losing at George Washington in November, and topping Ohio State on Dec. 1, before dropping the games at the Techs last week.

True road wins have been hard to come by for really anybody in and around the Top 10 this season. Case in point, Tuesday night, with #1 Kansas losing at West Virginia and #3 Maryland losing at Michigan, after then-#7 Arizona mirrored Virginia in dropping a pair of conference road games last week.

As good as the offense has been, and has UVA ranked fifth in the nation in offensive efficiency, so we can say, it’s been pretty good, this team’s fortunes will ride where they always have.

“I think our identity still lies in our defense,” senior guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “It’s going to be our defense that wins games down the stretch.  It allows us to be successful, but some days it unfortunately isn’t there like we need it to be, and our offense steps up. I thought we were able to get big shots from everybody tonight, but there is no question that our defense is what will allow us to be successful.”

– Story by Chris Graham


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