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Virginia update / December 30, 2013

Tonight, an unranked Virginia squad travels to SEC country, to meet a Tennessee squad that presents a formidable challenge for a Cavalier squad which has not reached its full potential.

The Vols are 7-4 overall, 5-1 at home.

Virginia is in Knoxville for a matchup with Tennessee, with three of the first four conference games on the road. Virginia starts at Florida State on Jan. 4, followed by the home opener against Wake Forest four nights later. Then, it’s to a two-game Tobacco Road swing.

Virginia gets a dangerous N.C. State team that appears to be better than expected, followed by the lone game with Duke, in Cameron on Jan. 13.

N.C. State fell to Missouri Saturday, in a tough 68-64 decision.

The Cavaliers, standing at 9-3 before the test against the Volunteers, obviously perform very well in certain basketball fundamentals, especially on defense. In recent statistics, Virginia ranked second in the ACC in scoring defense, second in field goal percentage defense, seventh in 3-point field goal percentage defense, and this club is tied for first in rebounding defense.

Virginia missed opportunities at home twice against two teams expected to make the NCAA field, including powerful, fourth-ranked Wisconsin.

The defeat at Green Bay will stand as a negative mark on NCAA Selection Sunday, but these Cavaliers still have time to correct some issues of concern moving forward towards ACC action.

Virginia, which repelled a quick, guard-orientated Norfolk State squad last Monday at home, is still trying to get a handle on the most productive use of the deepest team Tony Bennett has had in Charlottesville.

There are 200 minutes available per team in regulation college basketball, and nine Cavaliers got at least ten minutes. Ten players went out overall, and it’s clear Bennett is still not quite there per the most effective combination of playing time.

“I played ten guys tonight and had been playing nine. I wanted to shorten the rotation and play eight, but ended up playing ten. I think they are all capable and each game dictates something different. There are different matchups that call for different players. Everyone wants to play,” Bennett said.

Virginia guard London Perrantes said, “I think it all comes down to who wants to win. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to win. ... We’ve got to believe in (Bennett) and have faith (in him), which we all do. I feel we all know what the big picture is, and that’s getting wins.”

Offensive efficiency and crispness certainly remains an issue for Virginia. And this team, while certainly talented and capable of making a top five run in the ACC, also appears to have stretches where there’s a lack of focus and concentration - possession by possession. It’s this apparent drift that could get Virginia in real trouble in the ACC, especially on the road.

Against NSU, Virginia shot only 38.9 percent from the field in the second half, while connecting on one of three treys. Granted, Virginia put NSU in its own holiday icebox with 36.4 percent field goal shooting, but the Cavaliers likely will have to pick up the offensive intensity after halftime in January and February.

“We’re trying to figure out how to win with this group we’ve got. We’ve got a lot of good guys, a lot of talent. We all play hard. We’re trying to find that right niche, where we’re playing hard defensively, we’re getting stops and we’re also playing well on the offensive end. It’s the same thing every year. I feel like this year might be taking a little longer,” Virginia’s Akil Mitchell, said.

NSU had stretches where the visitors clearly bothered Virginia with inbounds plays, and general ball security issues, especially at the start of the second half last week.

The Cavaliers finished with a negative assist-to-turnover ratio (11-12), which spells potential trouble, especially with ACC teams carefully looking at recurring inbounds issues when Virginia has possession of the ball.

“We had 12 turnovers (against NSU). To start the way we did in the second half was unacceptable. It looked like we were just messing around. I got after Malcolm (Brogdon) at the end because we have had situations like that where we just hand the ball away and there needs to be some accountability for that,” Bennett said.

Virginia has to mount a clean-up operation, and quickly, on this issue. The Cavaliers are 11th in the ACC in turnover margin and 12th in assist-to-turnover ratio.

Virginia is not seen as a high-octane, fast-charging offensive powerhouse - that’s not Bennett’s style - but the Cavaliers could certainly be more proficient pushing for points. Virginia was 14th in the league in scoring offense, eighth in field goal percentage.

And, those free throws. The Cavaliers finished an acceptable 69.2 percent against NSU, but Virginia stood 12th overall in free throw percentage.

Norfolk State will likely be strong in the MEAC and probably will be in some kind of postseason action. But Virginia also has a steep, quickly arriving challenge in the ACC tests to come.

“I feel like we’re coming along well. The break definitely helped us. These last two games (Northern Iowa and Norfolk State), we’ve been able to get those under our belt before we get into ACC play, before we play Tennessee. We’re trying to keep the chemistry going. I feel like we definitely have gotten better, especially over this break. We definitely do a lot more work that helps us get the chemistry,” Perrantes said.

“The difference between this team and last year’s team is that we have won some games not playing our best basketball, or we have certain guys struggle. We have been doing well lately, but we can still play better. We haven’t played our best basketball but have found ways to win. We will need to improve to keep up in our league,” Bennett said.

Bennett’s right on target there.

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