The Virginia Cavaliers men's basketball team has gotten off to a solid start, going 9-1 with only one real setback along the way (two-point loss to TCU in the Paradise Jam), about what you'd expect from a team that was predicted to finish fourth in the (normally) ultra-competitive ACC.
This year there is more depth, with Tony Bennett getting settled in his third season as coach in Charlottesville.
The schedule up to this point has been a tad on the soft side, but you have to dig a bit deeper to get a true sense for what sets this team apart from UVA squads of the past couple years—and what could propel this particular team to heights not seen around Hoo country in over a decade.
There's no question that having some key veteran players has a steadying effect on an otherwise youthful team.
This is certainly the case with the Hoos this season.
Fifth-year seniors (PF) Mike Scott and (SG) Sammy Zeglinski bring not only nearly a collective decade of college hoops experience between them into the fold, but also add a great deal of talent and depth at their respective positions.
Their leadership has been evident early on and will prove crucial as the team gets into the meat of the ACC schedule and faces some stiff tests on the road (at Duke and at UNC immediately come to mind).
Assane Sene is another key cog in the machinery of Bennett's system, and although his talent level has been questioned by some, his experience in the post against the Big Uglies of the ACC and his marked improvement in numerous areas should serve as an inspiration to his younger teammates.
The seven-footer scraps, battles and hustles, and just generally lays it all on the court when he's given the chance.
That intensity breeds confidence among coaches, teammates and fans. All three lead by example, and all three are hungry for a chance to make the Big Dance for the first time in their college careers.
Broadly speaking, a real key to success has been Virginia's improvement with the fundamentals.
I know, I know, quite the revelation, but there are some specific areas where the team is playing so fundamentally sound, it's certainly worth noting.
Virginia is 27th in free-throw percentage nationally, and first in the ACC, hitting 74.8 percent of their shots from the charity stripe. Three-fourths of the time the Hoos get fouled, they make opponents pay, and that's crucial when your team faces superior talent (as they will against Duke, UNC and FSU), especially on the road.
The Hoos are No. 32 in the nation in this statistic, committing only 11.9 TOs a game. While this fact is mostly due to the style of ball the Hoos play on offense, by going deep into the shot clock and waiting for openings in a methodical manner, it is still meaningful.
Without the ability to force turnovers, opposing teams have very limited fast-break opportunities, which only further plays into the slow-down, half-court style that Bennett has installed.
This one is a bit harder to explain (at least for someone like me), but it's pretty obvious that the on-the-ball defense from the guards and the rotations inside the perimeter in the half-court D are already much improved from just a year ago.
Of course there will be breakdowns, and occasionally some players will be out of position, either because they were overzealous with a steal attempt or simply failed to help in the post.
Those kinds of mental errors are being kept to a minimum at the moment, and it will be very interesting to see whether or not that translates into ACC competition.
I began writing this article just before tipoff for the Oregon game, and the result of that contest only reinforces this last point of the "fundamentals" section: The team is rebounding with authority on the defensive glass.
In fact, that was practically THE key to the game tonight against the Ducks, as the Hoos held a 38-25 rebounding advantage and allowed only six offensive boards (Mike Scott on the other hand collected five all on his own).
When you take away second-chance points from teams, you establish a physical presence on the court which energizes the entire team, and you make opposing offenses more one-dimensional (the more undisciplined teams tending to hang around the three-point line when things get difficult around the basket).
This factor is fairly straightforward: UVA is simply deeper this year.
With two legitimate, experienced point guards, two solid post players and a bevy of talented wing players, this group of Cavs has some real talent at its disposal at various positions.
That is not something that the Virginia faithful have been able to say for many years.
Seniors Mike Scott and Assane Sene are a good one-two punch in the paint, though admittedly that is mostly due to Scott.
Sene is much improved, however, especially at the line, where he is second on the team in overall percentage at 81percent. Akil Mitchell (soph.) and Darion Atkins (fr.) provide some much-needed help, especially on the defensive end, when Scott or Sene gets into foul trouble.
Sammy Zeglinski (sr.) and Jontel Evans anchor the point, and either can bring the ball up the court with confidence.
Evans has improved his offensive game on multiple levels, adding a nice floater to his repertoire and improving from the free-throw line, while his defense is extremely solid as it has been since he first arrived in Charlottesville.
Zeglinski is doing what he does best—setting the offense, controlling the tempo and hitting some timely threes, not to mention having solid free-throw shooting (notice a recurring theme?).
The 2 and 3, or whatever you want to call the positions (SG), are fairly fluid on the depth chart, but for all the right reasons.
As stated before, Zeglinski can fill in as a 2 while Evans takes the 1-spot, and tend to make for a deadly duo when setting up Virginia's offense. There's no question that the team is at its best when they are on the court together.
Zeglinski's three-point shooting is a nice constant to have, but has only been enhanced by the emergence of sophomore Joe Harris' shooting abilities.
The guy can flat-out light it up from bonusphere when he's on, and that helps Zeglinski get more open looks himself. Far from a three-point specialist, though, Harris has a nice mid-range game and even drives to the basket with surprising strength and can finish around the rim.
Freshman Malcolm Brogdon is the final piece to the puzzle here, and his addition has been a welcome one (albeit a tad inconsistent, but what do you expect from a frosh?). Again, Brogdon has range, handles the ball well for a 6'6" guard and has even played some 1 here and there.
Suffice it to say, guard play is a decided strength for the Hoos this year, and that's a bit of a surprise to many.
Last year, after double-double machine Mike Scott went down with a season-ending injury, it became painfully clear just how one-dimensional UVA was without a viable inside presence to fill the void.
As the season wore on the team lived and died by the three. Without opposing defenses collapsing to respect the Cavs' post play, the guards were constantly harassed and could barely break the into the three-point arc, let alone actually drive the paint.
Amazingly enough, Virginia still managed to win seven conference games (going 7-9), largely due to some heroic three-point shooting on various occasions. Still, Bennett knew that was not a recipe for sustained success and saw his team's chances at making the postseason fade as a result.
This year is an entirely different story.
Mike Scott is back and in great form, grabbing at least 10 boards and racking up at least 10 points practically every game. As a coach drawing up a defensive game plan, you have to respect that.
And as a reward for Scott's patience on the bench through most of last season, he's been given the help of a much-improved Assane Sene, whose hands went from bricks to catcher's mitts, giving the team yet another legitimate scoring threat underneath the basket, especially with his new-found ability to actually slam it home on occasion.
All of this improvement in the paint can only help as defenders are forced to collapse and often create double-teams down low, providing the guards and perimeter players more space to unload from downtown, or even dribble-penetrate for some off-the-ball action.
It's no secret that coach Tony Bennett brought a unique defensive system to Charlottesville: The Pack Line.
Essentially, this defensive scheme is designed to do one thing: protect the interior—most of the space within the three-point line. Players sag back when an opposing player draws in, rather than hug the perimeter, to prevent dribble-penetration and easy buckets inside.
The only real Kryptonite to this kind of defense is an ultra-fast point guard who can break defenders' ankles en route to the basket and throw no-look passes to the wings (think "Pistol" Pete Maravich).
Luckily Maravich and Iverson don't play in the ACC, and UVA's strategy will work more often than not, as long as the players remain committed to the system.
That leads me to my next point—the players seem to have finally bought into Bennett's system entirely.
Perhaps the players were all-in last season as well, but there just seemed to be times when guys got tired of playing their assignments and wanted to create turnovers and make fast-break opportunities, but instead gave up penetration and the easy basket far too often (well, relative to this season's stingy group).
Now, instead of the Hoos living and dying by the three, the tables have turned—and that's exactly the kind of situation that Bennett hopes to force opposing teams into (and has been able to thus far).
Either you slice and dice the Pack Line with super-fast guards or you simply shoot over them. Apart from that, there's not a whole lot you can do against a committed and capable Bennett-led defense.
Somewhere, Dick Bennett (Tony's father) is smiling to himself.
Since Tony Bennett arrived in Charlottesville, he made an immediate splash in the recruiting world and the momentum only seems to be building.
Pulling in players from all over the country, he has managed to put together two top-25 classes in three years, according to both ESPN, Scout and Rivals (three reputable recruiting sources).
Interestingly enough, that's more just icing on the cake for Bennett, as he's stated from day one that he's looking to find players that fit his system, regardless of their "ranking" or national perception, according to various recruiting services.
It just so happens that the players he's been bringing in to fill his system are also highly-touted high-schoolers with plenty of talent.
Bennett Recruits of Note:
James Johnson, KT Harrell, Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogdon (all 4-star players according to Scout or Rivals).
Highly-touted recruits for 2012 include: Justin Anderson, Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey (all 4-star players, according to Scout).
This last factor is multi-faceted, and quite frankly hard to gauge.
I'm lumping a number of items together in this last piece of the puzzle as to why I think Virginia is starting out so hot, and why I think it is bound to continue throughout this season.
For one thing, John Paul Jones Arena (affectionately known as the "Jack" around Hooville) is a top-notch, state-of-the-art, acoustically and aesthetically brilliant edifice for basketball. For example, Virginia took down No. 10 Arizona in '06, a 93-90 W that featured a raucous capacity crowd of 15,219.
Unfortunately, a lack of sustained success in recent years has rendered the "sixth man" of the crowd a bit less effective.
However, with a successful run into the heart of the ACC schedule, expect crowds to grow along with each fresh win.
Virginia fans may be called fickle by some, but there's no question that they're always ready to spring into action to support their teams when they feel motivated.
There's definitely a feeling in the air around grounds and around the Commonwealth about this Virginia team, and I have a feeling tickets will be harder and harder to come by as we get further into the season.
Coach Tony Bennett just has such a calm, steadying demeanor that you can't help but feel at ease with him directing players from the bench.
A far cry from Gillen's sweat-drenched shirts and lack of timeouts, and Dave Leitao's loud obscenities and furious gestures, Bennett's emotions are under wraps and under control, which carries over to his teams.
This can only be a benefit with adversity on the road, and for any future tournaments in which the Cavs may find themselves.
By all accounts the Atlantic Coast Conference is "down" this year.
While Duke and North Carolina are still McDonald's All-American-filled, championship-caliber programs, and Florida State is arguably one of the top defensive teams in the entire nation with legitimate NBA talent to boot, the rest of the conference is a bit of a mess.
Virginia very well may have been picked to finish fourth in the ACC by the media in the preseason more because the rest of the league is either young, facing entirely new coaching staffs or simply lacking in talent.
However, when you consider the veteran leadership, the high-quality coaching staff (Ritchie McKay comes to mind), the young-but-talented players adding depth to the roster and Bennett's unique style of play that gives many teams fits, it's actually fairly easy to see why the Hoos were projected to finish in the top third of the ACC.
In fact, I personally wouldn't be at all shocked if UVA even does the media one better and finishes as high as third, ahead of Florida State.
Time will tell, but at 9-1 and with wins over a ranked Michigan team and on the road at Oregon in the Pac-12, all while holding every single team to under 60 points through 10 games, you have to like the direction in which the Virginia program is headed.