- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Just four days into the season, Virginia had already entered an unwelcoming cauldron. The 5,000-seat Smith Center on George Washington’s campus was filled with eager students. This is what the Cavaliers had knowingly signed up for this season. From the start, things would be more difficult. They hoped it served them well at the end.

They lost to the Colonials, picking up their first defeat of the season 18 games sooner than they had in 2015. Virginia coach Tony Bennett sweated through his suit during the game. He also valued the reminder of how difficult it was to win high-level games.

“Sometimes, you forget how hard it is,” Bennett said at the time. “And these settings remind you awfully quick.”

The value of the playing a more difficult schedule will first be measured when fourth-ranked and second-seeded Virginia opens the ACC tournament against Clemson or Georgia Tech on Thursday.

The Cavaliers (24-6) have six losses, two more than at the end of last season, because they received the tests they hoped for. Virginia finished the regular season second in non-conference RPI. Its overall strength of schedule rose from 25th to fifth.

“Those last two years we lived off of our success because we weren’t put in a spot where we had a struggle,” Bennett said. “This year’s team has lost close ones and struggled. There is good experience. My hope is that we’ll prepare as well as we can, and there’ll be a level of toughness. That’s what you hope. You hope the more experiences you have in different settings, you’ll be as ready as possible for postseason play.”

In a reversal, Virginia’s offense drove it for much of the season. It finished 11th in the country in field-goal percentage and 10th in 3-point percentage. According to the advanced statistics site Kenpom.com, the Cavaliers had the ninth best offense in the country.

But, their defense, the core of Bennett’s coaching and the team’s past wins, slipped. Virginia wasn’t as unified defensively. Its famed pack-line defense was leaking and needed to be fixed.

“This is our lifeline, this is how we compete,” Bennett said of the message about defense. “If we’re not really good in that area, the fine line of being just the best we can be, we’re probably not going to be successful.”

Since Jan. 19, Virginia has lost twice, by a total of five points. Duke beat the Cavaliers at Cameron Indoor Stadium when the Blue Devils’ latest supposed villain, Grayson Allen, made a buzzer-beating shot off the backboard. Miami held on at home to beat Virginia by three points.

Hauling Virginia through all of this has been senior Malcolm Brogdon. Bennett had suggested to Brogdon that he could return for another season and “have it all” if he did not declare for the NBA draft. For Brogdon, having it all meant completing an accelerated master’s degree in public policy at the university’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, plus basketball improvement.

Brogdon’s upticks were widespread. His field-goal and 3-point percentages were career highs. His rebounding and assist averages increased. The 18.4 points he scored per game were a more than a four-point improvement.

That offense combined with his standard exemplary defense to make him ACC player of the year and defensive player of the year. Brogdon is the first player in league history to earn player of the year and defensive player of the year honors from the media and ACC coaches. Brogdon, who shared the award last season with teammate Darion Atkins, is also the first player to win back-to-back defensive player of the year honors from the ACC coaches That haul made Bennett appear correct, though Brogdon said before the season began that winning a national title was the priority.

Brogdon and the Cavaliers are a week away from starting that process. They won one game in last season’s ACC tournament before losing to North Carolina in the semifinals. They lasted one game in the NCAA tournament, before it call crashed, yet again against Michigan State, in the NCAA tournament. They hope a change in scheduling produces a change in postseason results.

“I think you realize — and that’s maybe what playing this kind of schedule and this whole year — is you have to be right,” Bennett said. “You need things to be clicking well to be successful. If you just assume, because we won this many games, in years past pulled it out — we were 16-2 last year as well — that didn’t happen this year. Played quality ball at times, didn’t play, but I think that realization maybe has you in reality a little bit more than a little bit more insulated, thinking it’s just all going to fall into place.”

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

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