Bennett Ball: Virginia’s defense comes alive to smother unbeaten Providence

By Jerry Ratcliffe

The only thing better than two more wins tucked in his hip pocket as Tony Bennett walked out of Newark’s Prudential Center on Tuesday night, was knowing that his Virginia basketball team had returned to locking down opponents with suffocating defense.

Providence, unbeaten after five games and a two-point favorite by the oddsmakers coming into the game, fell for the first time this season, 58-40, as UVA marched to the Roman Legends Classic championship.

It wasn’t so much that Virginia won its fourth game in six starts, but rather how the Cavaliers won: Deeee-fense. 

Bennett’s blueprint to success has always been smothering defense, and this was no different. Not only did Virginia hold Providence to a mere 15 points at halftime, but its in-your-face defensive pressure caused the Friars to shoot a putrid 24 percent for the game (12 of 51), and only 14 percent from behind the arc, a paltry 3 for 22.

Now that’s the kind of defense Bennett and his fandom are familiar with. Perennially one of the best, if not the best defenses in the country, it’s what Bennett hangs his hat on.

“I mean, that’s honestly one of the best defensive efforts I’ve seen in years,” said Providence coach Ed Cooley. “They’re connected, they’re tough. They’re an elite-level defensive team.”

Cooley said that if anything is Virginia’s kryptonite, it would be a red-hot, 3-point shooting team, which is what the Providence coach hoped his team would be against Bennett’s ‘Pack-Line’ defense. That’s not one of the Friars’ strengths, but 14 percent?

The Cavaliers slapped handcuffs on Providence shooters as soon as they stepped off the bus, and never really let up. Nate Watson, the Friars’ leading scorer on the season, finished with 8 points, 10 below his average. 

UVA turned on its defensive prowess in the second half of Monday night’s opening-round win over Georgia, and it continued into the Providence game. The longer the game lasted, the more Virginia’s defensive intensity picked up. The Friars missed 17 of their last 18 field-goal attempts, including their last eight.

“I thought the way we started the game defensively was solid,” Bennett said afterward. “We were in position, we made them earn. Our defense would not allow anything easy for most of the game, so I think we took a step in the right direction for sure.”

Jayden Gardner and Francisco Caffaro were physical in the post, while Kadin Shedrick’s rim-protecting prowess continued to blossom with five blocked shots, a career high. Of course, there was the usual on-ball pressure out on the perimeter from Virginia’s guards.

Cooley said of his team’s 22 attempts from long distance that he estimated eight or nine were good looks. The others were contested, which brought a smile to Bennett’s face. That’s exactly what he wants, contested shots.

“You have to give [Virginia] credit,” Cooley said. “You know, this one was ugly for the Friars, but I’m pretty sure Virginia was really happy with the way they played.”

Cooley was right. This game indicated to Bennett that his team is progressing. It’s nowhere near where he wants it, but this was not the same team that lost to Navy on Nov. 9.

Gardner, who was named MVP of the Legends Classic, recorded his 21st game with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds (the first 20 came at ECU), liked the way he and his teammates started the two Newark games defensively.

“We’re working at defense every day in practice. The basics, the simple stuff, and just learning how to play in the pack,” Gardner said. “I thought we started out these last two games very locked in defensively.”

Bennett liked the steady improvement of Shedrick, who missed last season due to mononucleosis and other factors.

“He’s so long,” Bennett said. “I don’t know what his wingspan is, 7-foot-4 or 7-5. But with his mobility and timing, it’s really good.”

Bennett said sometimes he imagines that the big man, instead of swatting shots into the stands, is just going to reach out and grab a couple of shots one-handed in mid-air.

Cooley must have thought about that, too, at times during a very long second half for the Friars.

“I thought [Shedrick] impacted the game a lot,” the Providence coach said. “You know he has length. They’ve done a good job with him. We remember seeing him in high school down in North Carolina. Good player and they’ve done a really good job with their player development with him.”

The trip up north served a lot of purposes, as do most all of the early-season nonconference games. Bennett wants to expose his team to all sorts of styles of play and find games/opponents that will expose some of his team’s weaknesses, so he can work on those areas in practices.

It’s all about trying to get better before the ACC schedule rolls around.

“We are going in the right direction,” Bennett said after the game. “We’re getting better. We’re finding out what our strengths are. I think you saw some guys grow up the last couple nights (particularly Shedrick and Armaan Franklin).”

Bennett said his is probably the newest team he’s ever coached, and he’s probably right. Not a lot of veterans on this team, and two of those are transfers, so a lot of new working parts or at least parts in new roles.

Defense is the key part of the learning process. The rest will fall in line.

Bennett said someone used to ask his dad — former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett — how he always got his players to buy in to playing winning defense. Was there some secret formula?

“And his answer was, ‘Every day … every day,’” Bennett said. “We’re going to demand it and hold you accountable. That saying, it’s not what you teach, it’s what you emphasize, we try to emphasize it and do a good job and make our deposits daily so that we get better and better.”

A few years ago, a frustrated Michigan player who had been locked down by Virginia’s defense said to a Cavalier player after the game, ‘Damn, what do you all do, practice nothing but defense?’

If he only knew.

Every day. Every day.