- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 21, 2015

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett clamped down on his tongue throughout the summer. His team was engaged in games of three-on-three against each other, and the point was to work the offense.

For years, Virginia’s head coach has encased his teams in defense-first philosophy. This has made them productive and, at times, dull. So, watching his players work through drills focused on offense left Bennett fighting his most natural urge, which is to emphasize or correct something about defense.

“I figured you have only so many bullets to get after them,” Bennett said. “I save them for this [part of the preseason], as far as the defense goes.”

“It was really different,” point guard London Perrantes said. “I don’t think we did one defensive drill this summer.”

A rule change will also spur work on the Cavaliers’ offense, which often is as exotic as a ham sandwich. College basketball will be played this season with a 30-second shot clock. Virginia, ranked sixth in the coaches’ preseason poll, will be pushed, like all schools, to execute faster. Often in the past, the Cavaliers would grind down the shot clock on both ends. They will have to up the pace this year, which, in part, is why Bennett set up the three-on-three work in the summer.

Coaches around the country have been able to mull the five-second shot-clock reduction, which is the first shot-clock change since the 1993-94 season. A pattern in assumption has emerged: They anticipate other teams will flash a soft press to pull time away, then fall back into a sagging zone to further strip the shot clock. Countering this for Virginia will be on Perrantes and point guard Malcolm Brogdon.

“I think we have a different offense, different things we’re doing this year that’s really going to help us,” Brogdon said.

Virginia began last season 19-0. It finished with the same ending as the previous season, being kicked out of the NCAA tournament by Michigan State. The Cavaliers lost just four times total, never by more than six points, and won 30 games on the way to a second consecutive ACC regular-season title. Yet, they did not move to the tournament’s second weekend.

“I think it was disappointing to not make it farther than we did, especially losing to the same team,” Brogdon said. “But, we have to improve on that. We have to keep that in the back of our mind when we get to that point again, and understand it’s not just the regular season we’re focused on. But, it’s the big picture, it’s the run we make in the tournament that really matters.”

On Wednesday, Bennett noted this season’s non-conference schedule. Virginia played one ranked team last season before ACC play began, when it traveled to Maryland. Villanova, ninth in the USA Today coaches’ poll, as well as Cal (14th) and West Virginia (23rd), are, at this point, ranked non-conference opponents. The Cavaliers will also play at Ohio State. The team understands this level of non-conference play may result in more fall and early winter damage to their record, but that it could be a boon in the spring.

“I think it’s a reflection of how good coach Bennett thinks we are or could be,” Brogdon said. “I think it’s also a reflection of his expectations for us. He expects us to be at certain level by March, and he wants to prepare us. I think he wants us to step up to the challenge, and I think we will.”

Virginia will make the push without two starters from last year. Guard Justin Anderson was a first-round NBA draft pick. Forward Darion Atkins is currently on the New York Knicks’ roster. There are two spots open alongside Brogdon, Perrantes and fifth-year senior forward Anthony Gill.

Bennett feels the Cavaliers have improved depth. They have nine returning players, to go with three freshmen. He said his rotation could include as many as 10 players.

Together, three weeks before the opener, they are receiving daily reminders that the summer of offensive fun has come to a close. Bennett has returned to his standard of harping on defense. His tongue has been freed.

“It’s defense now,” Perrantes said. “It’s always defense.”

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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