Virginia Cavaliers: 8 Reasons the Cavaliers Will Contend for the ACC Title
The 2011 Virginia Cavaliers return a seasoned, veteran team with one new addition in particular that has fans in Charlottesville thinking of old times.
It may not bring back memories of the Sampson era, exactly, but here are eight reasons the "hopeful" are hopeful that Tony Bennett's third season won't just show continued improvement, but a giant step forward in ACC play.
"B-ball" means only one thing in gyms and outdoor courts nationwide. But in Charlottesville and throughout the Cavalier Nation, it's beginning to develop a second definition: Bennettball.
Tony Bennett's third edition at UVA is off to a promising start and his teams have a definitive style to them that has ACC fans taking notice. UVA fans in particular are hoping for a return to not just the NCAA tourney, but ACC prominence.
The "Pack Line"
If you're going to implement a new defensive concept, how better to learn it than sitting next to its innovator night in and night out, and pretty much any other time you'd like?
Tony's dad, Dick, developed the "Pack Line Defense" after the three-point line was introduced in college basketball. Tony used it effectively as head coach at Washington State where the Cougars were among the defensive leaders in fewest points allowed per game in all three of his seasons there.
The more up-tempo style of play in the ACC, in addition to UVA's high turnover rate (allowing more possessions per game), hasn't led to quite the same impressive stats in Hooville so far, but as this team goes into its exam break at 8-1, it hasn't allowed more than 58 points in a game and has held more than half of its opponents under 50.
The bad news: Virginia's 2010 season took a grave hit before it was a third over when tri-captain Mike Scott suffered an ankle injury requiring arthroscopic surgery. The good news: Because Scott hadn't played in more than a third of Virginia's 31 games (and not in any in the second half of the season), he was granted a medical redshirt.
Mike is the lunch-pail kinda guy UVA has lacked so often in recent years. He always draws the other team's toughest inside post player and in turn draws their best inside defender. Although often spotting his counterpart a few inches, Scott has bulked up over his time in Charlottesville and lives in the double-double area code.
Mike's 18 points and 11 rebounds in UVA's dismissal of then No. 15 Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge raised some eyebrows and served notice that this Virginia team will not be an easy out for anyone.
Another player the 'Hoos must have healthy to contend in the ACC, Zeglinski has kept UVA trainer Ethan Saliba busy since becoming former Virginia head coach Dave Leitao's first recruit.
His determination and "Philly boy" toughness have been an inspiration to his teammates and left some UVA fans hoping he isn't rushing his return from a preseason ankle injury (suffered in a scrimmage versus Baylor in early November) with the grueling ACC season ahead.
Protecting the ball is of particular emphasis in "Bennettball" and when Zeglinski is on the court, turnovers stay at a minimum. Zeglinski is averaging 25 minutes a game thus far this season and hasn't had more than two turnovers in any game.
Zeglinski threw in a season-high 18 points in Virginia's latest victory, a 68-48 thrashing of last year's regular-season CAA Champ, George Mason, and Virginia fans are hoping it's an indication of things to come.
For JPJ regulars, watching the development of Assane Sene over the past four years has been similar to watching your middle-schooler become an accomplished high school player.
That's in no way to devalue Sene's abilities, which have risen to ACC competition levels and made him an integral part of UVA's expected ascension through league ranks. The reason is simple: There just aren't that many seven-footers out there who can make serious contributions to their teams.
Assane's single biggest improvement over his entire time in Charlottesville would have to be the strength in his hands.
He's been a liability on the offensive end, where Virginia has already had few-enough options, first because he didn't catch well and secondly because he didn't shoot foul shots well. That left Coach Bennett with either the option of trying to protect late leads four against five or having to remove the last, best line of defense against dribble penetrators should they break through the Pack Line.
That too may have changed as Sene, a 52-percent foul shooter in his first three seasons, is hitting at an 81-percent rate in the early going this year, leading to the possibility of Sene mustering increased late-game playing time.
Joe Harris, a kid who played for his dad in high school, committed to Tony Bennett, a kid who played for his dad in college, while he was still at Washington State.
He then elected to follow him cross-country when Bennett took the Virginia job and was asked to become "instant offense" on a team in desperate need of it, especially after Mike Scott went down. Harris fired up over 150 treys (60 percent of his field goal attempts) and hit a respectable 41 percent.
During the offseason, the coaching staff asked him to work on shooting off the dribble inside the line and thus far it has decreased the percentage of three-point attempts, but it has also dramatically dropped his success rate.
Virginia has to have that third scoring option to compete with the upper echelon of the ACC. Harris is expected to be that third (if not second) option. Where this Virginia basketball team is headed after the ACC Tournament may well depend on Harris' contribution.
The "Wild Card"
Hey, there's no photos available yet of Malcolm Brogdon, the guy who could help take this UVA team to unexpected heights, so instead you get a "wild card." But make no mistake, before Brogdon leaves Charlottesville he has the potential to be the most photographed player since Harold Deane.
Brogdon comes to Virginia as the Player of the Year in Georgia. His senior year stats are eye-openers (25.7 points, 12.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.3 steals a game). He made 53.9 percent (280-519) of his shots from the field, including 46.2 percent (48-104) from three-point range and 81.6 percent (213-26) on free throws, and the early returns on his transition to D-1 ball are solid.
Thus far he's shooting just under 40 percent inside and outside the arc. He can be a straight-up shooter or get a shot off the dribble. An added bonus is he doesn't hesitate to go to the boards and is an outstanding rebounder for a 6'5" slender guard.
By year's end Malcolm will likely be making this Cavalier unit a difficult one to defend. And when was the last time anyone around Mr. Jefferson's University can remember that being a problem for opponents?
John Paul Jones Arena
Only North Carolina State has won fewer ACC games on their home court than the 'Hoos in the five years since JPJ opened. But that doesn't tell the whole story.
John Paul Jones Arena seats 14,593 for basketball. And, like the team it's home to, it has the potential to play a major role in this year's ACC race. That's primarily because of two things: First, Virginia fans are notoriously fickle. Tony Bennett teams are developing a strong following, but besides that, this town turns out to back a winner. Expect crowds to increase as the Cavs hold serve at home, possibly staying undefeated in JPJ right through to a Feb. 25 meeting with the hated Tar Heels of North Carolina.
I've never seen this reason credited anywhere, but reason two has to do with the design of JPJ. As fans in the second deck will tell you, the seating is steeply inclined, giving it a feel of old-time venues, when arenas went up instead of out. This makes the court seem cavernous and amplifies the crowd effect. They may not be the Cameron Crazies, but 'Hoos fans take a back seat to no one else (in fact, they don't take a seat at all!) JPJ will become an effective Sixth Man as this team rolls toward lofty ACC heights.