Virginia coach Tony Bennett responded defiantly before the complete question was even asked about his team’s defensive philosophy.
No, he said, No. 13 Virginia has not changed its identity from a defense-minded team to one focuses more on offense. The coach also said if the Cavaliers want to reach their potential, they need to start playing better defense.
”We’re a work in progress, and you always are defensively, but it’s so much of a mindset,” Bennett said Tuesday night after the Cavaliers (13-3, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) beat No. 8 Miami 66-58. The Cavaliers ended a two-game slide in which they’d uncharacteristically allowed Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech to shoot 53 percent from 3-point range.
The Hurricanes shot just 42 percent (21-50) overall and 27.3 percent (6-22) from 3-point range. Bennett, though, felt like the Cavaliers were only marginally responsible, allowing too many unimpeded drives to the rim and too many open jumpers that just happened to miss.
”They missed sometimes maybe more than we stopped them, but again, very thankful for the win,” he said. ”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.”
His players were well aware that the victory didn’t solve all their deficiencies.
”We still have a long way to go,” forward Anthony Gill said. ”We’re not up to par where we need to be defensively yet, but it was a good win for us. Losing these last two games, we weren’t playing Virginia basketball and that’s not what we do. So just coming out and really focusing on moving and making them work, it felt good.”
The Cavaliers face a rugged battle at Florida State on Sunday, and Bennett made it very clear that any notion his team has figured things out because it won is wrong.
”The finesse game doesn’t work when you get into conference play,” he said. ”It’s a physical game. … Most leagues, you can’t get away with just kind of a polite game.”
Virginia, which has won the ACC regular season title the last two seasons, might not have been mentally ready for the rigors of conference play after a difficult non-conference slate meant to prepare them for March.
”I don’t know if we thought it came too easy,” Bennett said of a 13-1 start, ”but it’s a battle every possession. I think some of the guys who’ve helped build this program understand how hard it is” to continue winning.
The weeks ahead, he said, will demand far more attentiveness to the principles that have brought success.
”I don’t know how good this team can be,” Bennett said. ”I just want them to be their best.”
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