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Virginia’s success stems from its stauch defense

- - Saturday, January 14, 2012

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Akil Mitchell has heard the gripes.

Friends, family members and students, at some point, have said the same thing about this year's Virginia basketball team. He's got his response ready.

"I've heard, 'You guys are boring to watch,' and all that stuff," the sophomore said. "But we're getting wins."
The Cavaliers are 14-2, a record forged almost entirely by their stingy defense.

It's an approach to playing that won't get the team on SportsCenter often, but has been paying dividends on the court. Virginia wears teams down point after point, refusing to allow a breezy back-and-forth pace.

In U.Va. games where an over-under line has been set, the final score has been under the line 10 of 11 times.

"You come in and watch our practices, and it's all defense," guard Joe Harris said. "One defensive drill after another."

Coach Tony Bennett has been sharpening this approach since arriving at Virginia three years ago, but last year's team didn't have the personnel to keep up the pressure for 40 full minutes.

This season, senior Mike Scott and company can go wire to wire with anybody, as evidenced by Thursday night's game against Duke.

While the Wahoos were preparing for the game, they realized just how demanding their defense is.

"We were sitting there watching Duke on TV, and we were like, 'Coach Bennett would jump all over that,'" Mitchell said of a minor miscue. "When I came in, they were saying defense is key here, but I don't think I really understood."

All that defense, of course, can come at the cost of offense. One of Virginia's top defenders is Jontel Evans, who has shot 39.8 percent since arriving in Charlottesville.

Scott and guard Joe Harris have been the team's only consistent point producers, with the rest of the lineup sometimes providing little help. The usually reliable Sammy Zeglinski is shooting 38 percent, including going 0-for-8 against Duke.

With shooting like that, even the slightest defensive breakdown can mean the difference between winning and losing. Bennett's assessment after the loss Thursday was that an early second-half breakdown cost the team.

"We walk a fine line," he said. "We know we have to get as much offensive production as possible. But if we want to be as good as we can, we can't have those little lulls on the defensive end, which I feel like is in our control. Offense can ebb and flow, but defensively that can't happen."

For now, Bennett continues to chase the standard of defensive perfection. It's a lofty goal, and not necessarily crowd-pleasing, but one that has produced good results in Charlottesville.

Read more about the Cavaliers at TimesDispatch.com