Hoos Embrace Growing Expectations

Coach Tony Bennett and the Hoos will try to tackle increased expectations.

There’s no way to ignore it. There are higher expectations for the Virginia men’s basketball team this season. Experience and a growing talent pool usually lead to those sorts of things. So while the NCAA Tournament is a goal every season, the Cavaliers concede that this is their best opportunity to go dancing in Tony Bennett’s tenure.

But, as the Hoos across the board are quick to point out, it’s nothing more than a chance. The rest comes from practice and performance.

“We do have more experience coming back. I think, starting my third year, this is, since I’ve been here, our best chance to take that next step,” Bennett said. “Our goal every year is to make an NCAA Tournament and get into postseason play. So I think, out of my years here, we have our best chance to do that. There’s so many variables that come into it. … Obviously, things have to [go well like where] guys have to stay healthy. It’s easier said than done, but we’ve improved in the offseason, and there’s a lot of experience there. So I think don’t get too hung up in the early season projections, but I want our guys – I don’t know if embrace is the right word, but not shy away from those and expect to be a better team. We’re going to have to do it on a daily basis with our practices.”

“First of all it makes us feel good that we have support behind us, but that’s all fine and dandy but nothing is guaranteed. We have to come in the gym and work hard,” guard Jontel Evans said. “That’s one of our main goals is to make it to postseason play, but like I said nothing is guaranteed. We have to come in here and work hard. We have to follow Coach Bennett’s systems and we have to go out there and compete. That’s one of our goals that we’re going to try to accomplish this year.”

The Cavaliers, like the rest of the college basketball world, get started officially next week, but weekly two-hour team sessions and individual workouts have been rolling for weeks. Based on Virginia’s men’s basketball media day Thursday, it sounds like the Virginia contingent is happy with the starting point for the 2011-2012 season.

The players embraced a long offseason focused on individual improvement and tried to channel the up-and-down nature of last season as motivation. Each was given a series of film clips and notecards with specific areas to address in the spring and summer months. The tidbits included slimming down and becoming more mobile for Mike Scott, trimming up and improving ball handling for KT Harrell, and diversifying his offensive game for Joe Harris .

Mike Scott returns to provide a veteran post presence.

Bennett has noticed a culture change to use the popular buzz term starting to show up with his players. He thinks that combined with experience and toughness forged through adversity can propel a team to new heights.

“You had upper classmen, guys that had been through the ropes and really had gone through some hard times. We got that one covered. We can check that box off, I’m pretty sure. (laughing) But guys that have been through it and struggled. So they had some upperclassmen and guys that have played a lot of game experience. So I think that was the first and most important thing,” Bennett said of common qualities on NCAA Tournament teams he’s been around in his career. “And then there was some – every team has a burning desire and a passion, but it’s just different. There’s a – the catchy term is a culture change or change in the culture. But it’s just you sense it in they’re more professional or more businesslike when you walk in the gym. And before practice you see them working on their game 15 minutes before we’re to start practice. They’re not sitting on the side shooting shots from the chair of seeing if the Gatorade is weak this day. They’re working. And you just see a purpose and, I guess, a mindset that just kind of sets it apart from past years.

“I think we’re close to that. I think we have the experience, and I think there’s a desperate desire to really want to improve. And I think they feel that. The guys feel there’s a better chance – this is our best chance since we’ve been here for a lot of reasons. Does that guarantee it? No, it never has,” Bennett continued. “There’s got to be that ability to have some breakthrough moments in the season, whether it’s overcoming something or having a couple big wins or something goes your way that whether it’s by good fortune or you will it to happen, it just happens. … I just want our guys to fall in love with the process. You guys have heard me say that. I think that’s what you have to do. We know what our goal is. We know we have a better chance at it, but if you get so [caught up in that], squeeze it so tight? You’ve got to hold that thing with open hands but realize you can – you don’t have to fear that goal. You’ve got to go after that and make it happen.”

Scott, back for another season thanks to a medical hardship waiver, has tried to help set the tone in that regard along with fellow seniors Assane Sene and Sammy Zeglinksi. Scott says that hard work can ripple through the whole program if players are dedicated to it.

“I think I kind of started the trend, not trying to take all the credit, but teammates have seen how hard I’ve been working in and out of the gym, during practice, and before and after practice. I think it’s a trend that everyone else wants to works hard,” Scott said. “They see Assane working hard, Sammy working hard, the leaders working hard and they think I want to work hard. If you see others work hard, you just want to do it as well. You don’t want to be the one to slip off.”

The Cavaliers’ challenge is to convert all of the hard work into confidence, which began to grow late last season after losing Scott and Will Sherrill to injury for a portion of the schedule. Down the stretch, the Hoos were highly competitive in road losses at Miami and Florida State and then won four of their final five regular season games. UVa even held a big lead in the ACC Tournament before Miami staged a furious comeback amid a Virginia collapse. The Hurricanes won 69-62 in overtime.

Despite the disappointing conclusion, however, it became clear that the Cavaliers could compete in the rigorous ACC. Bennett said that confidence, like the kind UVa built late last season, is a crucial element to success.

“I think for our guys the confidence that they’ve been there, they’ve been competitive. … We started playing some better basketball at the end of the year. We really did,” Bennett said. “I think the guys should have some confidence from the experience in the games that they were competitive and successful at times.”

Take that confidence and add Scott, the redshirted James Johnson , three true freshmen, and a year’s worth of experience to the plate … well, that’s where the expectations come from. The Hoos, however, sound like they’ve already gotten Bennett’s message about embracing the expectations while staying focused on the daily process it takes to get there.

“We’ve put in a lot of work in the offseason and we’re really excited about practice because it means the season has started. We’re just taking it a day at a time,” Harrell said. “We know there’s a lot of expectations on the team, but we’re not trying to live up to them or anything; we’re trying to work on ourselves and our individual games to make our team as a whole better and whatever happens happens. That’s how we’ve got to look at it and I think that’s how we all look at it. I think our chemistry and how much we communicate is definitely going to affect how far we go.”