Wednesday, March 03, 2010
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Time for Bennett to show crisis management skills

We shouldn't turn away, no matter how ghastly the sight.

We shouldn't write this off as some sort of lost season for Virginia basketball. There's no such thing as a "lost season" on the road to glory.

It all matters, even the bad stuff. So we'd better pay attention these next two weeks -- starting tonight.

Let's begin by agreeing on something: The first year is never the one to make end-all judgments on a coach. The team UVa's Tony Bennett puts on the floor at Boston College tonight will look nothing like the one he'll unleash in two years. Coaches need to find players, and players need to fit systems, and the fitting process takes time. We all get that.

But tonight's game matters. So does Saturday's game against Maryland in Charlottesville. So does the game -- maybe "games," we don't know for sure, even though we can speculate with confidence -- in the ACC Tournament next week.

The Cavaliers need to show something.

More importantly, Bennett needs to show something.

How does UVa's new coach manage a basketball crisis? This, we really don't know. In his first season as a head man, Bennett took a Washington State team picked to finish last in the Pac-10 and won a whopping 26 games, taking national coach of the year honors.

The next season, he won 26 games again.

The next, he got hired away by UVa as one of the hottest young coaches in America.

That's a pretty charmed career.

But now look: After an unexpectedly strong start, Bennett's Cavaliers have dropped seven in a row. And it's not so much that they're losing them -- UVa was picked to finish 11th out of 12 ACC teams, after all -- but it's HOW they're losing them. They haven't shot 40 percent in any of the losses. Despite Bennett's defense-first mentality, they've allowed 50 percent shooting or better in four of the defeats.

Worst of all? In the past five games, they've been outscored by double digits every time.

"We are not playing well," Bennett said after the latest loss, a 67-49 home setback against Duke, "there's no doubt about it."

The temptation is to shrug it off as inevitable growing pains. They are who we thought they were, as Dennis Green famously put it.

But are they really? Maybe before the season began, but not since. After all, this team started 14-6, including 5-2 in the ACC. All but one of the six losses could have been victories. The Cavs won eight straight from Dec. 21 to Jan. 18. If they had zero talent, none of that happens.

So there's more to it than a lack of talent. During the past month, there's been a failure to maximize the talent on hand. And it's Bennett's job to change that.

"I think you try to find little victories," Bennett said. "Little things to say, 'All right, these things we've done well.' And you just try to make improvements. Focus on the quality of what's going on. When there's things that are quality, you recognize them. When they're not, you obviously bring those out. And you keep working at them.

"And you don't get as hung up on the end result, because all that's going to do is -- it doesn't help. [The big picture] is what it has to be for us."

That's fair. The big picture is that UVa is in the first phase of a rebuilding process that could take years. But you've got to start laying a foundation, even if wins don't come. That means you need to make progress.

My suggestion for frustrated Cavs fans? Watch UVa's defense tonight. Boston College shoots 44.8 percent from the field on the season. See if the Cavs can keep it lower than that. Preaching defense as your identity -- as Bennett has done -- is fine, but ranking dead last in the ACC in field goal percentage defense -- as the Cavaliers have done -- is not.

Do you really need the injured Sylven Landesberg or a slew of blue-chip recruits to defend effectively?

No. You need players willing to buy in and a coach who knows how to manage a crisis.

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