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Bennett Ball Preview: Part I

UVA BasketballBy no stretch of the imagination will Tony Bennett’s rookie year as head coach of Virginia be a cakewalk. It looks to be a crazy ride in the ACC this year, with eight teams receiving votes in the preseason AP polls. Four of these (North Carolina, Duke, Georgia Tech and Clemson) cracked the top 25, with Maryland sitting at 26. How does Virginia look to fare this season? StreakingtheLawn takes a look in the first of a three-part series.

Here’s the good news: Virginia is the only team in the ACC that returns all five of its starters. The bad news is that these are the same five starters that led the Cavaliers to a 10-18, 4-12 ACC record, the worst UVA team in over 40 years. But with a new head coach in town, Virginia fans have a lot to be excited about, as we battle our way through a [weak] nonconference schedule and [strong] conference play.

The General

Virginia Head Coach Tony Bennett, courtesy UVa Media RelationsLeading this army is Head Coach Tony Bennett in his first year in Charlottesville. There has been a lot of coverage on Bennett already, so I’m not going to dwell too long on his background. I won’t dwell on his AP Coach of the Year or Naismith College Coach of the Year. I won’t dwell on his less-than-ten-loss seasons during his first two years as Washington State. I won’t dwell on his Sweet 16 appearance. I won’t dwell on any of that.

Bennett looks to bring to Virginia his and his father’s pack-line defense. It’s the same defense that Sean Miller used with Xavier and uses with Arizona. It’s the same defense Dino Gaudio uses at Wake Forest. With this defense and Bennett at the helm, Washington State had the best scoring defense in the nation, at 55.4 points per game.

On the other side of the ball, Bennett has told his players the same thing over and over. Take the shot only when the shot is there. None of this shoot-within-the-first-ten-seconds nonsense or this up-and-down offense. If it takes 34 seconds to make the bucket, then let it take 34 seconds.

Virginia’s slow[er] offense is not one that’s entirely foreign to the institution. It’s pretty close to what the winningest coach at Virginia, Terry Holland used. The same Terry Holland who made it to two Final Fours (only one of which was with Ralph Sampson), who won an NIT title (okay, that was with Sampson), and who won Virginia’s only ACC Tournament title. So we know that this system works in the ACC.

If his coaching is half as good as his recruiting (which, unfortunately, was not the case for either Dave Leitao or Pete Gillen), we are in for quite a ride. In addition to bringing in what’s been ranked as high as a number 8 recruiting class in the country, he was able to keep on board Tristan Spurlock, 4-star Rivals No. 91, and Jontel Evans. It took a little work with Tristan, as Bennett had to dig up some old film footage to show him that he’s not going to be stuck standing with the ball for 35 seconds. "There is a stereotype," Bennett said. "I had to show him that it's not like what he had heard. I had to ease his mind."

Jontel Evans knows exactly what he’s in for, as Tony Bennett has drilled into his boys this year one thing and one thing alone. Defense. Defense. Defense.

"You mess up and take a bad shot on offense, he might get mad," Evans said. "But you give up a play on defense, and oh, maaaan."

In sum, our general might be young, but he’s got a proven track record at Washington State. His style on defense has worked in the ACC and the same goes for his offense. Fans should be looking forward to a well-coached game.

The Troops

We’ve got two rookies on board this year: Jontel Evans, a 5-11 guard who averaged 14.2 points per game and 5.0 assists per game at Bethel HS in Hampton, VA, and Tristan Spurlock, a 6-7 guard/forward who had averaged 22.6 points per game and 4.8 rebounds per game at Word of Life Academy in Woodbridge, VA. Both of these guys were recruited by Dave Leitao, and both of them renewed their commitment when Bennett was brought on board.

"Bub" Evans should be able to see a little bit of playing time his freshman year, particularly with Calvin Baker on the bench due to arthroscopic knee surgery. What did ESPN have to say about him? With a grade of 87, they added, "The combination of strength, quickness and explosive athleticism with a handle makes him one of the rare point guards prepared to step in and compete from day 1 at the collegiate level." He’s a relatively big dude, which is good because he’ll be a great replacement for Calvin Baker, who is generally known more for his defensive strengths than anything else. Bub was also a standout football player with an offer from NC State and interest from Maryland, Virginia Tech and South Carolina. Not too shabby, right? He’ll be focusing only on basketball at UVA.

Our other new recruit is Tristan Spurlock, who will likely see time as small forward. He’s going to be good. What else is there to be said about him? He was graded a 91, and is a Scouts and Rivals 4-star (ranked 91st in the country by Rivals). And he is ready to make an impact the second he gets here.

"I don’t want to waste a year. I don’t want like a ‘learning’ year where I’m just sitting and watching. I want to get out there and really get after it, and be a force on the court."

As a high school senior, we saw Tristan score from as far out as 17 feet from the basket. By the way, Tristan wears #24 because Kobe Bryant is his favorite player.

Tristan SpurlockThe concern with him might be from defense, as he has admitted to having a little bit of difficulty covering the guards. "Jeff [Jones] really lit me up the other day," he said, smiling. "Guarding Jeff and [Farrakhan] off screens is really difficult, but guarding Mike down low is also rough." So, what I’m hearing is that you had troubles guarding the perimeter and/or the mid-game, and then you also had troubles guarding under the bucket? That’s certainly not a good sign.

But when all is said and done, I won’t be surprised when if we see Tristan as a starter before year-end. He had also considered Villanova, Georgetown, Louisville, Wake Forest, Clemson, Texas and Syracuse, so you know that this guy has got talent. I think he’s a going to be a great inside/outside threat if the Cavaliers get him the rock, so get excited.

For the returners, we’ve got everyone coming back. Sort of. While both Sammy Zeglinski and Calvin Baker are both coming back (both averaged 2.5 turnovers per game, last season, by the way), Calvin is undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery and will be missing a part of the season from the get-go. Also, just announced this weekend is that Assane Sene has been suspended for three games (in addition to last weekend’s closed-door scrimmage vs. St. John’s) for conduct detrimental to the team. I think this is a good sign that Coach Bennett is not afraid to flex his muscles if his players act up. There’s been a little bit of a concern that he’s a little too much of a players’ coach…more one of the boys than the man calling the shots (though he has refused to play a game of HORSE with them).

Sylven Landesberg, courtesy UVa Media RelationsAnd of course there’s Sylven Landesberg, the ACC Rookie of the Year. He scored in double digits last year in 23 of UVA’s 28 games, more than half of those being with 20 points or more. He’s the first UVA player to be an ACC Rookie of the Year since – no, not Sean Singletary – Chris Williams in 1999. He was fourth nationally among rookies in scoring, averaging 16.6 points per game. In other stats, he averaged 6.0 rebounds per game and 2.8 assists per game. He and Bennett have said that his number one goal this year is to get the other guys involved.

"My challenge to Sylven will be this," Bennett said as practice began. "Every good player I’ve been around, the real good ones, they just find a way to make their teammates better."

Other than that, there hasn’t been too much commotion during the off-season. The usual suspects return in Jamil Tucker (shot 40.3% from behind the arc, 41.7% (20-48) in ACC games), Mustapha Farrakhan (shot 90% from the line), Jeff Jones (started 9 of the last 10 games and scored in double figures in five of the last 11 games), Mike Scott (10 games with double-digit rebounds last year), Sol Tat, and Jerome Meyinsse (has never scored more than 4 points in an ACC game), and we can only hope that Bennett has been working these guys hard over the past seven months.

Stay tuned for Bennett Ball Preview: Part II, as we take a look, and make some predictions, at the out of conference schedule.