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With reduced roster, Virginia begins quest for ACC title

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Virginia assistant basketball coaches Ron Sanchez and Jason Williford have been taking on new responsibilities in recent weeks.

It has nothing to do with paperwork, though. The two coaches have been active participants in U.Va. practices, filling in on a Cavaliers' team that is down to nine scholarship players.

As such, they're playing against the players they're also teaching.

It may not be an ideal situation, but as coach Tony Bennett notes, "We don't have a ton of options."

Forward Akil Mitchell laughed when asked about the play of the assistants, giving them some trash talk for future workouts.

"Coach Sanchez is awful," Mitchell said. "Coach Williford is OK. And you can tell them I said that."

Since the departure of guard KT Harrell and forward James Johnson, practices have been shorter and more intense to try to account for the reduced roster.

With Virginia ranked No.21 nationally and ACC play beginning Saturday night against Miami, any depth issues could put an end to the Wahoos' national buzz.

Center Assane Sene knows that. He's been playing with a thumb injury on his shooting hand for the past month, but is continuing to tough it out, given the team's slimmed-down lineup.

One benefit of the smaller group, though, is more team chemistry. The players say since Harrell and Johnson have left, unity among the remaining players has grown.

"Honestly, I feel like we've gotten a lot closer," forward Joe Harris said. "When stuff like that happens, it's tough on the team because you don't want to see guys leaving. We take a lot of pride in having loyalty to the program and the coaches, and the guys who are still here want to be here. We know that, and I feel like it makes us closer as a team."

Forward Mike Scott added it's part of the natural progression in Bennett's third year as a coach. After the first year, players left the program who weren't on board with the system, and Scott believes in future years, the bond will be even tighter.

On the court, the question is where the offense will come from.

Bennett's defense has shut down opponents so far, but the scoring has occasionally been uneven. In Monday's 57-52 victory against LSU, Bennett fielded a lineup without sure shooters Scott and Sammy Zeglinski.

"You'd like to have a little more balance out there scoring-wise," the coach said after the game. "But it's a situation where we just felt guys needed rest, and they needed to get out there and hold their own defensively and buy some time — or push it ahead."

It worked out against the Tigers, and now conference play awaits a team that is protecting its top-25 ranking with a razor-thin margin for error.

Read more about the Cavaliers at TimesDispatch.com

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