Virginia-South Florida: Cavaliers Fall While Hopes Remain High
Rome was not a built in a day, and neither will the Virginia men's basketball team.
Coach Tony Bennett inherited quite the mess when he arrived to Charlottesville earlier this year. He has a team that won 10 games last season, one that has lacked fundamentals on offense and defense.
He also has a team lacking the confidence and know-how to be successful.
That was rather evident in Monday night's match-up against the South Florida Bulls.
Virginia came into the contest short-handed with the suspension of Assane Sene and Jamil Tucker's absence from the team. They left with their tails between their legs and the optimism of a nascent season already on the line.
Now it may be hard to come away from a 66-49 loss with silver linings, but Virginia really did have positive moments against the Bulls. Despite poor shooting, the Virginia defense played very strongly for the first 15 minutes.
The Cavaliers contested shots, forced turnovers, and generally upset the rhythm that South Florida was trying to find. In truth, those 15 minutes were better than just about anything Virginia played last season.
As a result, even though Virginia was struggling offensively and although the Cavaliers had no inside game at all, they were still in the game. In fact, South Florida did not take its first lead until there were just over five minutes left in the first half.
Too bad basketball games are 40 minutes long.
Virginia reverted to its own ways, taking bad shots, over-pursuing and standing still on both sides of the ball. Everything Bennett has preached about for the past seven months had disappeared, and the result was not pretty.
In the end, the numbers were pretty ugly. For the game, Virginia shot 32.7 percent, including a woeful 2-of-12 from behind the arc. Worse yet, with the exception of Sylven Landesberg, Mike Scott, and Jeff Jones, the rest of the team shot 5-of-19 from the floor.
That is not going to win you many games, particularly when you allow your opponent to shoot nearly 55% from the field for the game.
The knee jerk reaction to such a game would be to already pack it in for the year. After all, much of what we saw in the second half was the same train wreck we witnessed last season.
However, it would be wise to remind ourselves that virtually our entire front court was out. Mike Scott was in foul trouble, leaving Jerome Meyinsse as the only big left in the game.
South Florida simply had more size and athleticism, and no matter how well you play defense, Bennett cannot help his players grow a few inches.
It is also important to understand that South Florida may actually turn out to be a pretty decent team.
Despite a finish near the bottom of the Big East last season, the conference is full of so many question marks that the Bulls may actually make some noise this time around.
Besides, playing any power conference team on the road is a tall task and even if the Sun Dome is not exactly Cameron Indoor, Cavalier fans will not live to rue this day like other poor performances the past few seasons.
Virginia is still a major work in progress. Cavalier fans have every right to feel disappointed, but they need to understand that growing pains are part of the master plan. We may not like it, but it is fact.
One can worry over missed assignments and poor decisions until the end of time, but there are signs of progress. At least we need to hold judgment until after the full roster is healthy and active.
After all, even the 2007 NCAA tournament team had a certain Puerto Rico Shootout most Cavalier fans would love to forget about.
The road to redemption will be long for Virginia and Bennett. It certainly will take more than two games to overcome the past two seasons of bad habits that have developed on this team.
Bennett has a terrific coaching staff, a strong incoming recruiting class and the patience and experience to take a former coach's players and turn them into something respectable.
For once, Virginia is on pace for a long-standing solution and not the quick-fix Band-aid provided his predecessors.
The Cavaliers will continue to move forward this season. They will win more games, they will lose more games. At times they will be brilliant and other times they will look like the JV team.
All teams face adversity; it's how you respond to it that matters. Virginia might be feeling down after a poor performance, but the Cavaliers remain far from out.
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