Life on the East Coast may be an adjustment for new Virginia coach Tony Bennett, but none of that matters this week in Cancun, Mexico.
Bennett may not have much experience against the ACC juggernauts like Duke, but he knows plenty about the team Virginia is playing Tuesday night, the Stanford Cardinal.
Indeed, this Virginia-Stanford duel seems much like star-crossed lovers. On one hand you have Bennett, the former coach at Washington State who came to love Pullman, Washington as a second home.
On the other hand you have Johnny Dawkins, the Duke legend and long-time assistant who has switched coasts to sharpen his teeth at Stanford.
Bennett is 1-1 against Dawkins head to head, as both teams won their home games against the other in the PAC-10 last season. His new team had a pretty bad stumble against South Florida, but has continued to slowly improve on the defensive end toward a 3-1 record to start the season.
However, the fact remains that this is one of the first real tests Virginia is going to face this season. By the end of this contest, we will know much more about each team as both programs try to improve upon disappointing results last season.
If Virginia is going to pull off the victory Tuesday night, look for recently returned sophomore center Assane Sene to play a pivotal role. After serving a three-game suspension in which the Cavaliers played with virtually no frontcourt at all, Sene returned in fine fashion to record eight points in seven rebounds.
While Sene continued to show the promise that keeps Virginia fans excited for the future, he also continues to frustrate the fan base with his excessive fouling. After all, what good is Sene's return if he only spends his time on the bench in foul trouble?
Bennett was quick to note that Sene is not going to be the magic cure to Virginia's woes, however, his progression is critical to the team's success.
"I think defensively we did better because we didn't have to double and instead we could spread out and make the opposing players make shots over the top," Bennett told reporters after Virginia's victory over Oral Roberts, however "we have to get him to play with his feet instead of his hands and play in proper position."
Bennett has already shown strong decision making when it comes to adjusting to his team's talents. While the four-guard lineup had to have made sense in theory with his thin front court, Virginia simply did not have the shooters to make that game plan feasible.
Against South Florida, when the Bulls recognized that Virginia could not hit from the outside they simply clogged the paint and slowed the offense. Bennett wisely countered the next few games to put Mike Scott and Jerome Meyinsse on the floor for extended periods of time to keep the defense honest.
While this decision has improved the offensive sets, it has not improved the rebounding. If the Cavaliers are going to be successful, they must find a way to limit second chance opportunities for the Cardinal. They will also likely need a few extra opportunities themselves.
The Cavaliers have a tough task in front of them, Stanford may be 2-2 at this point in the season, but they are coming off a 30-point victory last weekend. They also are 5-1 all-time against Virginia, including a one-point victory in 2007, the lone loss for the Cavaliers at the John Paul Jones Arena in its inaugural season.
Indeed, Stanford has had Virginia's number as of late. For whatever reason, the Cavaliers have seemed to struggle not only in terms of stopping the Cardinal, but even mustering the energy to put forth a good effort. If Virginia does not contain Landry Fields, it may be a case of history repeating itself.
Fields has scored at least 20 points in every game this season, making him the first player to do that since Brook Lopez at Stanford. The senior had a breakout season last year when he was given the opportunity, averaging nearly 15 PPG and filling up the stat sheets with 42 steals and 66 assists.
His experience and his overall game make him a dangerous threat to Virginia, and if the Cavaliers cannot manage the ball, this game could turn quickly.
That means the pressure will be on sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski, one of the most pivotal players on the team this season. Zeglinski may be a very likable guy, but he needs to prove that he can effectively run the offense against high quality teams.
The good news for Zeglinski is that he probably has had his best back-to-back performances ever in last week's victories over Rider and Oral Roberts.
The young man from Philadelphia has a tendency to get a bit skittish under the bright lights of the John Paul Jones Arena, but looked very poised last week. Zeglinski did not gamble as much on defense and moved his feet to keep opposing shooters at bay.
Also, Bennett wisely has divvied up the ball-handling duties, allowing Zeglinski time to catch and shoot the ball. As a result, his numbers have skyrocketed, and he has 12 and 13 points respectively in the past two contests.
If Virginia can consistently get those numbers out of Zeglinski, mixed with the potential for defensive efficiency, the Cavaliers can make some noise this season.
The greatest motivation for Bennett's club though may not just be victory, but the opportunity to play Kentucky if Virginia wins. This would be a huge opportunity for the Cavaliers to show their stuff on a national stage.
Granted, Virginia could very well be laughed out of the building. However, it could also show that the Cavaliers made the right choice in hiring Bennett if they were to keep it competitive.
Bennett ball may not always be beautiful, but it beats losing by 30.
The Cavaliers will learn a great deal about themselves in Cancun. The season is young, but there is already things to be excited about. Conversely, there are still nagging concerns.
Bennett realizes though that Virginia must take these things in stride.
"My challenge to them though is just don't go back down to ground zero," Bennett said. "There might be some setbacks but let's make sure we just keep knocking and maybe eventually we'll be able to push that door open."
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