Virginia coach Tony Bennett: ‘You can do this. Now, will you?’

tony bennettTony Bennett has been playing mind games with his 11th-ranked Virginia team for going on a month now.

He may have finally broken through in his pregame talk on Saturday.

“You can do this. Now, will you?” Bennett asked his team before the Cavs went out and eviscerated #16 Louisville, 63-47, on Saturday.

It wasn’t just psycho-babble from the normally reserved Bennett, who has been searching for the right chemistry since the calendar flipped to 2016.

UVA was 5-3 in the ACC heading into Saturday’s game, tied for fifth in the conference, with a starting lineup and rotation in flux, and Bennett telling the media after games and on conference calls that that his team could do a lot better on the defensive end, and that he wasn’t giving up despite the obvious.

Things were so bad on D that Bennett scrapped the Pack-Line for a stretch Tuesday at Wake Forest to play zone, prompting Louisville coach Rick Pitino to wonder aloud in a chat with reporters if the younger Bennett was still on speaking terms with his father, Dick, the legendary progenitor of the Pack-Line.

Tony no doubt channeled some of Dad’s wisdom in getting his players to buy in ahead of the challenge that faced them at Louisville, which was 13-0 at home coming in, and seemingly more interested in what was facing them Monday night, with top-ranked North Carolina on the Yum Center schedule.

Bennett said he told his guys that they “have in the past played a team like this in this kind of setting and performed and been right. And I said, But will you? You have to know first that you can. Don’t ever forget that.”

It’s just one game, and you don’t want to read too much into just one game, but you might get the sense from Bennett that maybe it’s starting to come together.

Pitino saw it first-hand after his team shot 32.7 percent from the floor and was held 33.9 points below its season average coming in.

“You know, at the end of the game, two things really impressed me about them. They were up 20 and (Malcolm) Brogdon was yelling in front of our bench to his teammates, Just get one stop guys, just get one stop. Then on a sideline out of bounds play up 20, their hands immediately went up. Those are the little things that we are missing,” the Hall of Fame coach said.

Louisville scored 14 points in the first half, shooting 21.1 percent, in a scene reminiscent of a 13-point first half against Virginia in a February 2015 loss in Charlottesville.

On the other end, the ‘Hoos shot 57.8 percent for the game against the ACC’s best defense. The keys to beating Louisville’s matchup zone were spacing and ball movement.

“If you get stiff against that zone, then they eat you up,” Bennett said. “You have to have the ability to make some plays, to attack when they are there. You have to move it a little bit and shift it and our guys did a good job. It was nothing earth shattering, where I out-strategized the zone or anything like that. Our guys just played, they moved the ball, we had guards pretty much take care of it, we probably had a few too many turnovers, but there was good spacing, good ball movement, and then the guys played and attacked.”

Despite the 15 turnovers, UVA seemed to play with poise against the relentless Louisville pressure, which wasn’t quite the 94 feet of pressure that Pitino prefers, because the Cardinals weren’t putting the ball through the hoop like they normally do.

Louisville had 16 field goals on the day, and four came in the final 1:47, three of those in the final 46 seconds, after Bennett had subbed in freshmen Jack Salt and Jarred Reuter and a group of walk-ons to finish out the game against Cards’ regulars.

“At times I thought we got on the edge, and I had some of our staff on the bench watching a few things that we look at,” Bennett said. “I probably reminded them, you know, to be conservative seven or eight times in time outs at time outs saying, Understand, you’ve got to refocus on how quickly you have to get back and get your defense set.”

Because 57.8 percent shooting or whatever, this one was about the defense, which is what the past four weeks have been about, what the different starting lineups and rotations and mind games have been about.

Defense.

Nine games in, halfway through the league schedule, Virginia is 6-3, 2-3 on the road, with a signature road win now with the pelt from Louisville coming back home with them to Central Virginia.

It’s far from time to rest on laurels, of course.

“It’s a great league, I don’t know, we did it today and we can do it again, we’ll see,” Bennett said. “To ever assume, yeah, we got this, we’re good, that would be a big mistake. For them to know this is a blueprint on how you’ve got to be defensively. You’ll see different kinds of teams with different strengths and weaknesses, but yeah, you certainly say, OK, that was a complete game on both ends.

“We’re capable now let’s continue on, and so fortunate against Wake Forest. I still can’t believe how that played out, but you take it. And then we prepared well for this, and Louisville wasn’t at their best. I know their big kid was sick, they got in foul trouble, a lot of things, but I’m not going to take anything away from how our guys competed on both ends.”

– Story by Chris Graham