The Wisconsin vs. Virginia matchup is one Badger fans have been clamouring for ever since Tony Bennett was hired in Charlottesville. But I've always had my doubts how much the Four-Letter Network desired putting the game on TV sets. Luckily there are enough storylines to stick the two unranked teams in the early slot on ESPN2, so at least nobody else's overtime screws with our viewing pleasure.
Whether you call them Virginia, UVA, the Cavaliers, Cavs, Wahoos, or just the 'Hoos, Bennett has the program on the upswing, finishing 22-10 last year. This season, Virginia is one of only seven teams to play at a slower pace than Wisconsin. Like Badger fans, though, the Wahoos have learned to enjoy the winning more than the number of points.
To bring us up to speed on the new Cavalier era, we tracked down Justin Ferber from SB Nation's superb Virginia entry, Streaking The Lawn.
B5Q: Since I grew up in the 1990s, I always think of Virginia as a dangerous team in the ACC. But there is a perception out there that UVa had bottomed out and Tony Bennett is trying to resurrect some sleeping giant. Did bad coaching hires doom the program or was the demise overblown in your opinion?
STL: I definitely wouldn’t say UVa was ever doomed, but they did not achieve success up to the level of expectations for the past decade or so. Pete Gillen only reached the NCAA Tournament once, despite bringing in a lot of highly regarded high school talent. Dave Leitao replaced him, and also only made the Dance once, mostly with Gillen’s leftover talent. Virginia had only one really bad season during that time though, Leitao’s final year in 2008-09. You do get the sense that Bennett basically had to start from scratch, bringing in players that actually fit his scheme, as well as upgrading the overall talent level of the program. The Cavaliers are quite young this year, but many, myself included, believe that after this season Bennett can get the Hoos to the tournament consistently.
B5Q: Tony Bennett's connection to the state of Wisconsin leads many Badger fans to keep close tabs on the Cavaliers and root for Bennett in the ACC. His name will inevitably come up as a top candidate for replacing Bo Ryan whenever that day arrives. However, Bennett had his pick of jobs coming from Washington State and turned down Indiana, so he vetted his selection of Virginia carefully. Is there any subconscious fear of Bennett bolting for Wisconsin or an even bigger job opening down the line? How entrenched does he appear to be?
STL: Wisconsin is probably the only job I would be worried about Bennett leaving for if it opened up. A quick Wikipedia search tells me that Bo Ryan is 64 years old, so it seems possible that he could retire soon. If Bennett continues to build Virginia into a perennial tournament team, I’d assume with his ties to Wisconsin that his name would be near the top of the list. At this point though, he seems quite comfortable at Virginia. He chose UVa over several other offers, and I think he’s serious about building Virginia into a winner. I’m not sure how big of a draw going home and coaching at Wisconsin would be for Bennett, but I don’t think he’s going to leave Charlottesville any time soon.
B5Q: Please explain how the nickname Wahoos came about. Cavaliers wasn't unique enough for you guys?
STL: That’s a good question. I have heard a bunch of different reasons why, ranging from the student’s drinking abilities to an old song from the 1800’s. It’s been around since I’ve been following the Cavaliers, and certainly long before that. I think it’s just part of the culture now. I think Cavaliers is a pretty cool team name though, and it relates to the history of the Commonwealth. This makes it even dumber that Cleveland would use the name too.
(Ed. note: For more Wahoo info, do the Wiki)
B5Q: Give our readers a quick recap of the roster turnover and injuries Virginia has had to endure under the Bennett regime. Also do you expect PG Jontel Evans to play in Madison?
STL: For starters Virginia lost its best player and All-ACC forward Mike Scott, who is now with the Atlanta Hawks. His offensive production will be a challenge to replace this season. UVa also lost 5th-year guard Sammy Zeglinski, a pretty good shooter who is playing overseas. Also gone is Assane Sene, who missed the second half of last season, first with injury then with suspension. Sene was a real project for Bennett and his coaching staff, and the 7-footer from Senegal made great strides over his four years in Charlottesville. The Hoos also lost two second-year players to transfer mid-season last year, former 4-stars K.T. Harrell and James Johnson, both of whom seemed unhappy with their playing time. That means that 4 of the 6 members of Tony Bennett’s first recruiting class have transferred away (Billy Baron transferred to play for his dad at Rhode Island and Will Regan transferred to Buffalo after their freshman seasons).
A few of Dave Leitao’s players transferred away after the first season of Tony Bennett’s tenure in Charlottesville, but that is to be expected. Bennett also kicked former McDonalds All American and 2008-09 ACC Rookie of the Year Sylven Landesberg off the team for not going to class in 2010. For the record, all of these players that transferred away had really nice things to say about Bennett and the coaching staff. These losses, coupled with some devastating injuries really limited Virginia down the stretch run last season, and left the Hoos with only 6 or 7 healthy bodies for the NCAA Tournament game against Florida. So yeah, a great deal of attrition. Although he is a players’ coach, Tony Bennett will not play players who do not play defense, and he is not afraid to suspend players who break rules. And that’s fine by me.
As for Jontel Evans, he has just been activated for the game tomorrow, so there's your answer. He has only played in one game, two weeks ago against Fairfield, and only a few minutes at that. He’s practiced with the team, and it’s been a week since their last game against North Texas. Evans should be a huge boost to the Cavaliers if he can go, as they have struggled at times without a reliable point guard in the game.
B5Q: Where do you see Wisconsin giving Virginia trouble Wednesday? And conversely, who is leading the charge for Virginia and what advantages do you see the Cavs having over the Badgers?
STL: Finding ways to score will be the Cavaliers’ biggest challenge on Wednesday. So far this season, Virginia’s biggest problem has been breaking pressure with their guards in the backcourt. With Jontel Evans possibly returning against the Badgers that probably won’t be as much of a problem. With the loss of Mike Scott, UVa needs a balanced scoring approach to get the job done. Junior Joe Harris is a solid scorer who is probably good for 15 or so, but other than Harris, who will score? It seems that every game different players have stepped up and you just hope that some of Virginia’s younger players can handle Wisconsin’s sound defense in a tough environment. On the other hand, Virginia is very familiar with the style Wisconsin runs, obviously. Part of what makes the pack line defense and long offensive possessions so tough for opponents is that the pace can force up tempo teams to get frustrated and take bad shots. Virginia will have no problem playing at the tempo Wisconsin likes to run, they do it every game.
B5Q: I'm looking forward to seeing Justin Anderson play, in particular to see how he compares to UW freshman Sam Dekker. Both are multi-faceted rookie forwards who hit campus with a lot of fanfare. What's impressed you most about Anderson so far? Has he been the biggest contributor from this critical 2012 class for Virginia?
STL: Justin Anderson is the best athlete the Virginia program has had in a long time. He looks like a player who is physically ready to play in the NBA already. A lot of highly rated guys coming out of high school are more offensive-minded talents, but Anderson thrives on the defensive end. With great athleticism and long arms, he is a great fit for Bennett’s scheme. He is also a high energy guy that brings it on every play, so that can be a lift for a team. So far Anderson and swingman Evan Nolte have been the biggest freshman contributors for the Cavaliers. Nolte is a 6’8" shooter who has been really solid for the Hoos on the offensive end, and Anderson has a ton of potential, especially if he can develop his shooting touch.
B5Q: To no one's surprise, Ken Pomeroy predicts this game to feature the fewest possessions of any game remaining on either teams' schedules. How have fans adapted to the Cavs playing the slower, packline Bennettball?
STL: It was a transition, but a lot of fans have grown to appreciate it. You notice the energy level in John Paul Jones arena growing as the shot clock winds down. The crowd seems to be learning how to feed off of the Bennetball style of defense. I think Virginia fans have learned that low scoring games don’t always mean offensive incompetence, but that defense is an art in basketball. I also think that fans just want to win games, and if this is the style that can deliver results, then people are just fine with games in the 50’s.
B5Q: Prediction time. I need a score for Wednesday's game and a prediction on which conference wins the Big Ten/ACC Challenge this year.
STL: I expect a competitive game between two teams whose styles seem to mirror one another. In typical Virginia fashion I expect a low scoring game with few possessions, and I’ll go with the Badgers at home in Madison. Wisconsin 52 Virginia 49.
Some of those answers sounded all too familiar, didn't they? Thanks again to Justin for volunteering his time to answer some questions. To get more of Justin on Virginia hoops, check out his Twitter @Justin_Ferber or find him over at Streaking The Lawn.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Jared Berggren, Sr.||C||Akil Mitchell, Jr.|
|Mike Bruesewitz, Sr.||F||Darion Atkins, So.|
|Ryan Evans, Sr.||F / G||Paul Jesperson, So.|
|Ben Brust, Jr.||G||Joe Harris, Jr.|
|George Marshall, Fr.||G||Teven Jones, Fr.|
KenPom win probability: 85% (59-50 W) 55 possessions
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