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October 11, 2013

High expectations for UVa hoops

Virginia's basketball season opener is now less than a month away and practice is in full swing in Charlottesville. Even before it gets here, expectations are high.

Coming off of a season where the Cavaliers earned a top-four finish in the ACC and a first round bye in the conference tournament (but failed to reach the NCAA Tournament) expectations are actually higher than they have been in quite some time for UVa.

In the fifth season under Tony Bennett, the team is expected to finish in the top half of what looks to be the best basketball conference in the country, with the additions of Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

Now, in many of the games they will play this season instead of being the hunters Virginia will be the hunted. Part of the challenge then for this group will be managing a roster full of talented players and focusing on meeting everyone else's high expectations on the outside but also their own.

In each of the last two seasons, the Cavaliers have either met or exceeded their preseason expectations, at least according to the media. In 2011, UVa had one of the more experienced squads in the conference, and were predicted to finish fourth in the league that season. Despite a rash of injuries down the stretch, Bennett's team was able to meet that mark and earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

After losing a lot of talented upperclassmen, UVa was expected to take a step back last season, and was picked to finish seventh in the conference. Even with a young team breaking in a host of new players, the Hoos still managed another top-four finish and finished their season in the quarterfinals of the NIT.

So then it doesn't seem foolish at all to think this year, the media will tab the Cavaliers fifth or higher in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a high honor considering the talent the league will showcase at the top, with traditional powers and newcomers from the Big East alike.

Bennett said this week that he's hoping his team can once again overachieve and he was fortunate to have some experienced coaches speak with his group about how to mentally prepare to do just that.

"Coach Rick Carlisle and Terry Holland came in and spoke at a ring ceremony for the third-years before our first official practice, and it was really helpful that they both addressed that," Bennett said on Wednesday at John Paul Jones Arena. "They said, 'You are a little older, sounds like you have got a deep team, what do you think about the expectations?' Carlisle said that managing expectations is about the process. We talk a lot about that, to not get caught up in what people say, especially now.

"I thought this was a great message to our team and certainly something that most coaches talk about," Bennett added. "We have had some practices to remind us that we do have a ways to go but there is certainly some excitement to have more depth and more experience looking forward to the challenges ahead of us."

Even with a two players transferring out of the program during the offseason, Virginia looks to be one of the nation's deepest teams. In the past, the Wahoos have had to play a smaller group of players for a lion's share of the minutes, either due to injury or simply having an inexperienced bench.

This year, Bennett should have more trouble figuring out who will play which minutes and when rather than how they will get rest for a few players who are overworked during a long campaign.

"I think it remains to be seen how deep we are," he said frankly. "If we are healthy, and I pray for our health all the time because I know how important it is, but there is more than we have had at this stage. I think guys can then play harder for shorter stints; hopefully we don't have to wear guys down.

"As the season progresses you are playing guys you feel most comfortable with, whether that is 10, great, or if it's 11, eight, nine, that is to be determined," he said.

Finding groups of five that play well together early in the season will be key for the Cavaliers as they prepare for conference play. After all, depth isn't that much of an advantage if you can't use it.

Even though UVa has plenty of players on the roster who are capable of coming in and executing, if they don't fit together on the floor as a cohesive unit then it is all for naught.

Bennett's scheme relies on all five players on the court communicating and executing as a group and starting in fall practices, the Wahoos will have to continue to work well together as they've done in the past few seasons.

"That chemistry piece though, we have competitive guys, talented players, there will be a war for playing time, but will they put the team above themselves, the old cliché," the now fifth-year Cavalier coach said. "You always have to be ready because of the way the game is with foul trouble, injuries and all those things, so if they are willing to be patient and really try to embrace doing something as a group, that will be the key."

One thing that eases Bennett's mind is that he believes he has a program full of "team first" players, guys who are willing to play a role to help the team instead of just themselves.

As with any team, having players buy into the scheme and realize that everyone must have the same goals to be successful, will be key for Virginia this season, if they want to get back to the big dance.

"Will there be frustration from guys not playing enough? Of course, but I think we have a group that wants to be good collectively, which is how we have to do it. We do not have enough individual talents just to line them up and say we are going to dominate people. We have to do it collectively and with different guys at different times," Bennett said. "We talk about that a lot, which is why we try hard to recruit character guys and ones that are genuinely excited about trying to make this program better and better.

"And if they are and there is character, they will embrace the team and fight for individual goals but not be above being successful collectively," he added.

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