Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Punchless Cavaliers are just plain boring

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- They put on their orange T-shirts. They packed their optical-illusions props to distract the free-throw shooters. They waved their rally towels.

More than 14,000 showed up to John Paul Jones Arena on Wednesday night, and they were ready to get after it. Ready to hassle big, bad Duke.

And Virginia never really let them.

That's what was disappointing about this game. Not that UVa lost -- plenty of fan bases show up to cheer their teams against Duke knowing that a loss is likely -- but the utterly unentertaining manner in which it happened. The lack of fast-break opportunities. The absence of even a semblance of a run by the hosts.

The dearth of -- well, you know -- baskets.

Even worse? It's really not all that rare around here right now.

If you want to give the Blue Devils all the credit for their 56-41 victory over Virginia, fine. But not me. Not after watching Duke commit 18 turnovers and go long stretches without scoring in both halves. The No. 5 team in the nation was practically begging to get beaten here, or at least challenged, and it still won by 15.

That's a UVa problem, and not an isolated one. Sure, plenty of decent looks failed to drop Wednesday, but this isn't a team that just had one of those nights where nothing was falling. This is a team saddled with severe offensive problems that have been around all season -- with or without Mike Scott, against good opponents and bad.

Wednesday marked the seventh time this season UVa has failed to score 55 points in a game. All seven have come at home, against the likes of Radford, Norfolk State and Seattle as well as Iowa State, Maryland and Clemson.

No other ACC team has suffered more than three such impotent efforts, home or away. Duke, Maryland and North Carolina have yet to have one. Boston College, Clemson, Miami, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech have just one apiece.

The Cavs are last in the ACC in scoring average by almost a touchdown. No matter how much coach Tony Bennett wants to preach defense first, that just can't happen when you're trying to build enthusiasm around your program. Losing is tough, yes; boring is much worse.

And that's what this team is right now: dull. This game dragged like a woeful "Saturday Night Live" sketch where the punch line (in this case, Clank!) wears thin two minutes in. Every time the crowd started to murmur with hope, the Cavs put a stop to it.

Like when Jontel Evans hit that scoop shot off the glass to give UVa a 15-13 lead -- and then the Cavs went more than four minutes without another point.

Or when Duke opened the second half on a scoreless drought that lasted nearly three minutes -- only to see Virginia's scoreless drought last nearly four.

Or when the ACC's sixth-leading scorer, Kyle Singler, picked up his fourth foul at the 15:40 mark of the second half, prompting a roar from the crowd -- and UVa waited until the clock read 11:10 to scratch the scoreboard again.

Too much emphasis on defense at the expense of offense in Charlottesville, perhaps?

"We work offensively every day," freshman guard Joe Harris said. "We do a lot of shooting stuff. Coach is a big shooting guy. We work on it. That's one of the main focuses in practice -- it's not just defense.

"Obviously he stresses defense. It's what he wants us to do in order to win. He thinks it's going to make us successful. But we work a lot offensively. We do a lot of drills, finishing drills, shooting drills, all kinds of stuff.

"It's tough to tell you why we weren't knocking down shots."

Bennett didn't have an answer for it either.

"Let's call it what it is," he said. "You've got to be able to make some baskets."

Yes. And until they do, even the big crowds won't matter. And the Dukes of the world won't even have to be good.

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