Virginia battle-tested after busy offseason
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 SPORTS) -- From overseas to up the east coast and in the friendly confines of John Paul Jones Arena, few teams in the country played more this offseason than Virginia.
"I feel like our work from the summer to now has definitely paid off," junior guard Reece Beekman said, "I could tell in the scrimmages from just everybody being on the same page and communicating, so I feel like that's taken us a long way."
On Monday, the Cavaliers will finally play a game which counts against their record when they host North Carolina Central in the season opener. But for months now UVA has spent countless hours on the court starting with their preseason tour of Italy and recently with two closed scrimmages against Maryland and UConn.
Details of those scrimmages are as always hard to come by, but Tony Bennett was encouraged by what he has seen all offseason.
"I think having the European trip and [the scrimmages], I think I learned that we do have quality depth," Bennett said at the team's media day on Wednesday, "I'd like to say I think we shoot the ball a little better than last year, although obviously that can come and go. I think that'll have to be a strength of ours. We have a very experienced team and then we have a very young team, it's almost like two teams."
Bennett said the scrimmage format would typically last 40 minutes, then time would be added on to get more players game action. This year the Cavaliers are attempting to mix together a veteran laden roster with all five starters returning along with a highly-touted recruiting class. Bennett said Isaac McKneely 'showed some really good stuff' in scrimmages and adds a dynamic as a combo guard to the UVA rotation, but the freshman class overall has shown flashes.
"You can see the turnover, you can see the progression," senior forward Jayden Gardner said, "Especially in the younger guys starting to figure out some things, but then you just see the youngness when they're out there on the court, but these scrimmages have been good."
At times last season Bennett said the rotation got down to 6.5 players, but he fully believes up to 12 players could crack the rotation this season for Virginia. Bennett said he is not tied to any specific number in the rotation, but expects the Cavaliers to be versatile and players to shuffle up and down throughout the season depending on form and opponent.
"At one practice I said here's our guys that are top-seven right now," Bennett said, "I said you top-seven any of you could start, I said you other five any of you could get into the top-seven and any of you in the top-seven could slide to the eight through 12."
The scrimmages against Maryland and UConn not only offered Virginia another tune up before the season tips off, with one of the most challenging non-conference slate in decades, but also a more physical brand of basketball similar to the college game.
"There definitely was a difference playing in Italy versus those teams we just played," junior center Kadin Shedrick said, "Playing those two teams that we just played I think everything translated pretty well actually. We played hard which is the No. 1 thing about Virginia basketball you just got to play hard and work hard on defense and we're going to come out and do that every game."
Before Virginia left last weekend to scrimmage UConn, Bennett challenged his veteran team to do just that, play hard and play defense, establishing their identity as a program.
"Why the Bucks and the Celtics have gotten off to a good start, someone said they're both clear, compared to other teams, on their identity and then they just go out and play," Bennett said, "And that's what you're trying to establish because we played in Italy because we have some experienced guys, let's try to be as clear as we can in our identity."