Virginia Basketball: Tony Bennett's Tough Love for 2011-12

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Virginia Basketball: Tony Bennett's Tough Love for 2011-12
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett did not mince words when he spoke in front of the media for one of the first times this fall.

Bennett was not going to coddle his players—not when the Virginia Cavaliers have not been to the NCAA tournament since 2007 or any postseason at all since 2008.

That sentiment grew in strength when viewed in hindsight of the ignominious close to last season, when the Cavaliers suffered one of the worse collapses in the history of the program.

Virginia gagged a seemingly insurmountable 10-point lead against Miami in the ACC Tournament.

In the matter of 42 seconds, the game was inexplicably tied. The Cavaliers were lucky to make it into overtime, where they were blitzed and ended up losing by seven.

That loss, coupled with frustrations building from the staff, players and fans led to a very simple formula for success this off-season.

Coach Bennett gave every player on the Virginia basketball roster a card. On that card was everything they had to work on if they wanted to reach that mythical "next level".

Virginia basketball is entering this season with something it has not had in awhile: expectations.

If Virginia wants to live up to those expectations, however, the players will need to take this challenge head on and excel.

One player that the program has focused on is rising sophomore Joe Harris. Harris may be young, but he realizes that his talent has made him a focal point of the offense and a de facto leader of this young team.

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Harris established himself as one of the best shooters last year with the Cavaliers, even as a freshman. The swing man led the team in three-pointers, going 65-of-156, and was third on the team in total points with just over 10 per night.

Harris had some impressive games, and led the team in scoring at Cameron Indoor against the Blue Devils. He showed a moxie rarely seen in first-year players, and even led the team in rebounding six times last year.

Yet teams learned that if they crowded Harris beyond the arc, he would begin to hesitate. They took him out of his rhythm and limited his game.

In return, Harris got a card that told him he needed to become more physical and develop a mid-range shot.

Well, it turns out that Harris decided to do his homework over summer break. Looking at the young man now, it is clear that he has matured physically and mentally.

Harris has worked hard to improve his overall arsenal of shots. In practice, he and assistant coach Ritchie McKay go over those inside shots again and again.

Harris has bulked up to, trying his best to prepare himself for the physical toll it takes to play in the ACC.

Undoubtedly, Harris has taken a page from Virginia's big man and leading star Mike Scott, a man who also has worked hard to train himself to be the best he can be.

With Scott back in the lineup after a season-ending injury crushed the early momentum for Virginia last season, Harris may have every opportunity to make an impression on his opponents.

Scott demands attention, something that helped Harris get off to a hot start last season. When Scott went down, Harris was often guarded by the best defenders the ACC had to offer.

That pain has turned into experience, and this offseason has helped Harris diversify his game with the expressed intent of giving those same defenders fits in 2011-12.

With Scott and Harris back together, Virginia may finally be able to put together an offense to match that hard-nosed defense that Bennett staked his reputation upon at Washington State.

Harris may be just one part of the equation, but his progression can go a long way in turning expectation into reality.

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