Second-ranked Cavaliers winning with defense, as usual
Charlottesville, Va. — Defense has been No. 2 Virginia's calling card since Tony Bennett became the coach nine years ago.
The Cavaliers play at a pace that some have described as boring, but it's one its players and fans have come to embrace. Shot-clock violations are celebrated as much as tomahawk dunks. When the opposing shot clock dips below 10 seconds, it's as if the fans are seconds away from free pizza.
Virginia held Clemson to a season-low 36 points and Louisville to 64, more than 14 below the Cardinals' average. They'll try to do the same at Syracuse on Saturday. The Orange scored 61 in a loss in the teams' first meeting.
"If you were going to tell me we would come in here and shoot 50 percent and score 64 points, I would have liked our chances but sometimes the other team just makes more shots than you do, so you just have to give them all the credit in the world." Cardinals coach David Padgett said. "There is a reason they are number two in the country."
Humility, it seems, has a lot to do with it.
That, and, Virginia's ability to impose their will on opponents
A lot of the Cavaliers' defensive success comes from its patience and execution on offense. It's a different strategy that Syracuse's famed 2-3 defense, using lengthy players to clog up the inside, or pressure defenses like West Virginia and VCU employs to speed up the game. Virginia wants to slow people down, make them play at its pace.
"It is exciting because people don't appreciate it, don't talk about us at all and that's fine," sophomore guard Ty Jerome said of the defensive acumen. "We don't care. People call us boring, this and that, but we don't care. This is who we are and we're going to embrace it and our fans embrace it and that's what's most important."
It's an appreciation the players had to learn to embrace.
Sophomore Kyle Guy, a former high school Mr. Basketball, learned quickly that playing defense was mandatory for Bennett and that outscoring your opponent wasn't an acceptable approach to getting on the court.
"There are some cores or non-negotiable we always talk about and when you're not fighting your team or your players - why do I gotta be in this stance? - it's been validated for them," Bennett said.
Bennett-coached teams have led the nation in scoring defense four times since he started coaching, and the Cavaliers are doing it again this season. Clemson was the eighth opponent held below 50 points this season.
The Cavaliers (21-1, 10-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) also are off to their best start in the conference since they were 12-0 in 1980-81, Ralph Sampson's sophomore season, heading into a matchup with the Orange.
They have a three-game lead over every team in the ACC.
"We like being different," Guy said. "And when we miss a shot on offense, we're not very worried about it because our defense is going to make up for to it and most teams feed off energy when they are hitting shots and we sort of do it when we are making teams miss."
Virginia has won 13 in a row, and Bennett likes their chemistry.
"We don't have to be great. We just have to be good all the time," he said. "That's our way. I don't know what our ceiling is. ... I think there's a special synergy with our group. There's talent. There's individual talent, but I love that saying: 'The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.'
"We've got some really good parts but there's something going on with that synergy."
The Cavaliers lead the nation in scoring defense, allowing 52.7 points per game, and Louisville was the first team to make half its shots, hitting 25 of 50. Teams, as a whole, are connecting on 37.6 percent, third-best in the country, and Virginia also is efficient with the ball, ranking sixth with a plus 5.4 turnover margin.
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