CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Tony Bennett didn’t watch much tape of last year’s Virginia team after taking the Cavaliers coaching job. Instead, he formed his impressions based on his interactions with the team.
His wait-and-see approach has paid off. The Cavaliers (12-6, 3-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) are the surprise of the ACC.
While crediting Dave Leitao for bringing in the talent and instilling toughness in players, Bennett knew the team he inherited had only won 10 games – “and that’s tough. Really tough,” he said.
“That’s hard when you lose. It messes with your confidence and all those things.”
Virginia was the last unbeaten team in league play until Saturday, when it lost 69-57 at Wake Forest. The loss ended the Cavaliers’ eight-game winning streak, their longest in six years. It included their first 3-0 start in the ACC in 15 years. The Cavs lost another tough game Thursday in overtime to Virginia Tech, 76-71.
Bennett, who arrived in Virginia from Washington State, focused on two areas early – defense and turnovers.
The Cavaliers, the worst defensive team in the ACC a year ago, are allowing almost 12 fewer points a game this season. They also have cut their turnovers by 41/2 per game. And as result, Virginia has already surpassed last season’s win total.
“There’s something to new beginnings, a fresh start, clean slates,” Bennett said.
Apart from freshman guard Jontel Evans, these are the same players who limped to a 10-18 finish last season. Many of them seem almost reborn under Bennett.
Jerome Meyinsse has embraced the opportunity to start anew.
He is averaging nearly 21 minutes a game in league play, scoring 4.5 points and grabbing 3.8 rebounds per contests. Meyinsse is giving the Cavaliers a needed low post defensive toughness.
“He’s earned his time. He’s become steady,” Bennett said of the 6-foot-9 Meyinsse, a two-time All-ACC Academic Team recipient. “He’s become a force in some ways because he understands what he can do and can’t do. It’s great to see this going well for him.”
Last season, Meyinsse played in just 17 games, and not at all in the final 10.
“I’m doing what Coach Bennett has asked, playing defense, screening for people, rebounding, and it’s worked out for me,” Meyinsse said. “I’m having the time of my life.”
Players like Sammy Zeglinski and Mustapha Farrakhan have had similar turnarounds, and Sylven Landesberg, the 2009 ACC rookie of the year, appreciates Bennett’s impact.
“He just has a different way of motivating you,” said Landesberg, who leads the team with a 17.5 scoring average. “Just having him around, it has definitely boosted people’s confidence, and I think that’s why a lot of the guys are playing a lot better this year.”
Zeglinski started 15 games last season, but came off the bench in the final 10. He averaged 7.8 points and shot 31.4 percent on 3-pointers. This year, he’s up to 10.1 points per game and leads the league in 3-point shooting, having connected on 46.9 percent.
“We had a horrible season last year and everybody wanted to be part of something bigger than them, bigger than themselves,” Zeglinski said. “I think that’s why everybody’s bought into this new coaching staff. We just want to do something that’s bigger than us.”
Bennett’s tough, but positive approach has been the key to it. He insists his team think defense first, and uses playing time as the reward for the guys willing to play hard.
“He set down his ground rules of what was expected of us and he’s just been demanding it every day – demanding that we play defense, take care of the ball and hustle back,” Meyinsse said. “Every day we’ve been growing as a team and now we’re just hitting our stride.”
Bennett is quick to note that there’s still plenty to improve on, but said there’s nothing like some early success to reinforce for a team that they have a plan that works.
“When you have some success with it, a big win here or there, they get revved up: ‘OK, I think I see what Coach is talking about, that we can be in it with our defense,”’ he said.
Opposing coaches have noticed the difference.
“I think his guys are playing hard. I think they play under control. They understand who they are. They allow the guys that should have the ball in their hands to do their thing and create shots for other people,” North Carolina State coach Sidney Lowe said this week. “They’re very tough. They can get after you pretty good.”
The Cavaliers opened ACC play with a 70-62 victory on the Wolfpack’s floor, rallying from 10 down in the second half by holding N.C. State to one field goal in a 5-minute span.
They also beat Georgia Tech and Miami, knocking both from the Top 25.
“They’re an extremely confident team right now,” Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “They feel good about themselves, and they should. They’ve won a lot of games.”