Feb. 5, 2010

By Anthony Oliva III

Many would think Virginia’s improbable 5-2 start in ACC play would be exciting. In fact, by the ACC’s supercharged standards, it’s a little boring.

Or, as others may see it - methodical and effective.

In a conference defined by elite athleticism and NBA-bound players with extraordinary skill sets, Virginia has found success playing solid defense, and by limiting the chances of their opponent’s high-powered offenses. Despite averaging a league low 70 points per game, the Cavaliers have parlayed their defensive intensity into a 14-6 overall record and a tie for second place in the ACC with Maryland, only a half game behind first-place Duke.

Surrendering only 60.9 points per game this year, Virginia currently has the stingiest defense in the offense-crazy ACC.  Never was Virginia’s defensive prowess more evident than on Jan. 31 when Virginia held North Carolina – yes, that North Carolina – to only 60 points in a 15-point road win.

“We played great defense and it was a very satisfying win,” sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski said of the UNC game. “Help defense, being scrappy and always knowing where we were supposed to be in this system was the key. We did a great job of rotating when we needed to help, and we did a great job pressuring the ball. We just stuck to the principles of our system and it worked out for us.”

In 2008-09, Virginia let up an average of 72.5 points a game, or 11 points more than its current average, and went 10-18 overall and 4-12 in conference. A year before that was the same story. The Cavaliers let up 74.8 points a night, and went 17-16 overall, but only 5-11 in conference.

Enter head coach Tony Bennett.

Bennett, by way of Washington State last year, preaches team defense. Last season, his Washington State team yielded a Pac-10 best 55.4 points a game. This year, by contrast, the Cougars are giving up a conference worst 72.0 points a game.

Bennett has brought that approach to Virginia and it is paying immediate dividends for a team that was picked eleventh in the ACC preseason poll.

“We talk about knowing who you are, and not thinking too highly of yourself and not thinking too lowly of yourself,” Bennett said. “Having sober judgment is important. That also means knowing who you’re not. When you can get a team to understand who they are as a team, how they have to play, and what will get them success, that’s huge.”

In ACC play, Virginia has wins over Miami, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and two over NC State. Its losses came on the road against Wake Forest and in overtime versus Virginia Tech.

At the beginning of the season, this kind of run appeared unlikely. The Cavaliers didn’t hit full stride immediately, and started off with a 4-4 record. Virginia responded by winning 10 if its next 12 games.

“From the beginning of the season, we had a new coach and a new system, and we had a little bit of learning curve,” Zeglinski said. “Eventually we just started to get it and started to get results from it.”

The common denominator in all these wins: defense. In these past 10 wins, Virginia has given up an average of only 57.5 points a game.

“We’re just sticking to who we are,” Zeglinski said. “We keep growing defensively every day, and we know what we have to do to win. Every day is going to be a battle with us. We’re not going to go out and blow teams out. We grind. We know our defense is our staple, and even if we’re not shooting well, our defense is going to be able to keep us in game until our offense comes around.”

Striving at defense is not something that’s easy to do in the talent-rich ACC, but Virginia and Bennett have found a winning blue print.

It starts up top with good ball pressure, something Bennett, a former NBA point guard, is a big proponent of. He also stresses the off guards to constantly be in the gaps and passing lanes. Additionally, the Cavaliers try to eliminate easy buckets in the post.

“We really emphasize not letting the ball get in the paint and no outside drives, meaning don’t let your guy beat you to the baseline,” Zeglinski said.

Once again, this was on display in the win against the defending champions. North Carolina’s post duo of Ed Davis and Deon Thompson combine to average over 28 points a game on the year. Against Virginia, they combined for just 11.

“You need to take it as a challenge every night,” said Virginia forward Mike Scott about playing against some of the conference’s premier post players. “I challenge myself for them never to get the best of me. I try to make them feel uncomfortable out there, and just try to play tough defense.”

Not allowing some of the ACC’s predominant wingmen get out in free space is also something Virginia pays close attention to.

“We just make a conscious effort to get back on defense and make our opponents play against a set defense every chance that we get,” Zeglinski said. “We really try to limit team’s transition offense.”

But, don’t get it wrong, it’s not all defense. Virginia has been able to win games when asked to score a lot of points, and that’s perhaps what makes this team special. Eight times this season the Cavaliers have scored more than 75 points. Not surprisingly, they won all eight of those games.  

“We play the game that gives us the best chance to win,” Bennett said. “If there are opportunities where we can be patient, then we’ll be patient, but if there’s an opportunity where we can take advantage of our quickness, we’ll do that.”

Much like Bennett during his playing days, this Virginia team strives from 3-point range. Virginia shoots just under 40 percent from behind the arc, tops in the ACC. Zeglinski, third on the team with 10.4 points per game, leads the conference in 3-point percentage at 45.2 percent.

Joining Zeglinski in the backcourt is fellow sophomore Sylven Landesberg, the team’s leading scorer. Averaging 17.6 points a game, fifth in the ACC, Landesberg is a big weapon for the Cavaliers. Bennett stresses offensive freedom, and it is talented players like Landesberg, and the attention that he draws from other teams, that make that philosophy work.

In the post, Scott, who credits his aggressiveness, has made a big impact. The 6-foot-8 forward leads the team with over seven rebounds a game and chips in with over 13 points a night.

It is with these components and Bennett’s style that Virginia has been able to compete and defend in an otherwise jet-fueled ACC Conference.

“You see the level of athleticism combined with skill that’s very elite, and I think this league has the best of both worlds,” Bennett said of the ACC. “It’s not just a skill-only league. It’s not only athletes. It’s a pretty skilled league with guys that are great basketball players.”

You can put this Virginia team in that mix.