Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: At UVa, fun is back in style

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- You've got to love his energy. Positive. Encouraging. Almost -- dare we say it? -- cheerful.

The tall, foreboding man in the dark suit that used to stalk these sidelines has been replaced by the 1975 version of Carlton Fisk. At least that's who first-year Virginia coach Tony Bennett looked like to me Saturday. Not only did he squat about 700 times during the Cavaliers' 75-57 victory over No. 23 Miami, but he also waved those arms over his head after almost every big play his team made on offense.

Get back! Defend! Keep hustling!

Occasionally, Bennett would sit in his folding chair. That never lasted long. Someone would drive or shoot, and Bennett would pop up to his feet, almost like a fan expecting something good to happen.

And something good is happening here. Under Bennett, the Cavaliers are playing with confidence, style and poise. After beating their second ranked conference opponent in a row, they're 3-0 in the ACC -- owners of the only unblemished record in the league.

"Momentum is a strong thing," Bennett said. "And I think they're riding it, certainly."

The Cavaliers won Saturday because four of their players scored in double figures. They won because the Hurricanes -- statistically, among the better 3-point gunners around -- continued to struggle from the field, a funk that started Wednesday night in Blacksburg. The Cavs won because they defended well early and took care of the ball late.

And they won because of Bennett, whose done exactly what you'd hope a new coach could do -- change the culture of a downtrodden program.

Former coach Dave Leitao had his share of success early, but he had only one motivational technique during his tenure in Charlottesville: Screaming.

Check that. He had two motivational techniques. He also frowned.

That works for some people. But there comes a time when guys need to remember they're playing a game, and that time had come for these Cavaliers.

Bennett's upbeat personality has filtered down to these players, most of whom were part of last year's team that finished with UVa's worst record in decades. The next step is for that enthusiasm to imbue the fan base.

The Cavs took a good step in that direction Saturday. After fewer than 9,000 showed up to John Paul Jones Arena for the victory over Georgia Tech on Wednesday, a festive crowd of 11,413 showed up Saturday, erupting as UVa built an early 12-1 lead.

"It was jumping in there tonight," Bennett said. "It was loud, and that energizes you."

But Bennett doesn't lack for energy either way. He'll get on an official when he needs to, but he doesn't overdo it. He's particularly animated when the Cavs are on defense; at one point Saturday, he pantomimed the defensive stance he wanted guard Sammy Zeglinski to take on the sidelines. Sammy followed his lead.

The concerns that UVa would be slow and boring on offense under Bennett seem unfounded. The Cavaliers didn't run often against Miami, but when they did, the fast break looked well-rehearsed and crisp, typically leading to easy baskets.

Despite this start, not much is going to be easy for UVa this season. But the journey looks like it's going to be a lot more fun than it's been the past two years.

Let's just hope Bennett's knees hold up through all that squatting. He'd assumed that position again just before the half, when UVa enjoyed one of its finest moments.

With the game clock about to hit zeroes, freshman Jontel Evans fired up a high-arcing prayer that splashed through the net. All around Bennett, UVa's reserves leaped and shouted and high-fived each other.

Still squatting, Bennett turned toward the bench. And then he smiled.

Nice change of pace around here, don't you think?

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