Bennett visits old mentor Ryan

Virginia faces similarly defensive Wisconsin for ACC/Big Ten Challenge; Evans set to return


When Tony Bennett left Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan’s staff in 2003 and followed his father, Dick, to Washington State, he took more than his belongings with him.

He also brought with him Ryan’s penchant for stingy man-to-man-defense and perimeter shooting-fueled half court offense. Nine years later, he is emulating that slow, grind-it-out style at Virginia, setting the table for a fascinating showdown between apprentice and master when Bennett’s squad visits Wisconsin Wednesday evening as part of the annual ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“Coach Bennett’s told us that this team’s going to look like a mirror of ourselves,” junior forward Akil Mitchell said. “They play defense, they take care of the ball, they do a lot of the things that we do.”

The ties between the Cavaliers (4-2, 0-0 ACC) and Badgers (4-2, 0-0 Big Ten) run beyond Bennett’s four-year stint as an assistant in Madison or the teams’ identical records. They both impose a crawling pace of play and terrorize opposing offenses, with Virginia’s 54.2 points per game allowed last year ranking second in the nation — behind Wisconsin’s 53.2 points per game.

Bennett has his young roster maintaining the lofty defensive standard he set last season through six games this year. Virginia is yielding just 53.0 points per game so far and held Seattle and Lamar to a measly 87 combined points in successive wins Nov. 17 and 19, respectively.

The Cavaliers followed those defensive masterpieces with another dominating 80-64 thumping of North Texas last Tuesday to rebound with a three-game win streak from a shocking 59-53 loss to Delaware two weeks ago. With many of the squad’s heralded freshmen beginning to excel — including forwards Justin Anderson and Evan Nolte, who scored career-highs with 14 and 13 points against North Texas, respectively — Bennett and the players believe they are starting to discover the form necessary to navigate the perpetually grueling waters of ACC competition.

“I think we are making the most of our opportunities,” Bennett said. “…You’ve got to just keep plugging.”

Mitchell, in particular, has been a revelation in the early goings, anchoring a largely inexperienced offensive line. With junior guard Joe Harris predictably providing Virginia’s primary scoring option with 15.0 points per game, Mitchell is averaging a near double-double with 11.7 points and 9.3 rebounds per game and is easing the Cavaliers’ transition to life without 2012 All-ACC star Mike Scott.

“Without Mike there, I’m just trying to be the leader of the post guys,” Mitchell said.

Senior point guard Jontel Evans should finally return at full throttle for Virginia Wednesday evening after an X-ray last weekend showed that his broken right foot has healed to an acceptable level. In addition to relieving Harris of ball-handling duties, Evans’ quick hands should bolster an already stout Cavalier defense. He earned ACC All-Defensive team honors in 2011-12 and has led Virginia in assists and steals each of the last two years.

“He just gives us that extra spark defensively — he knows his defense like the back of his hand,” Mitchell said after the latter’s brief cameo in the Delaware defeat. “He’s our leader on the floor. He’s our go-to offensively.”

Like Virginia, the Badgers are trying this season to replace their undisputed best player from 2012, graduated guard Jordan Taylor. Taylor averaged 14.8 points per game last season a year after Yahoo! Sports named him to its Second Team All-America squad, steadying an otherwise uneven offensive attack for Ryan’s characteristically gritty roster.

Somewhat surprisingly, though, Wisconsin is scoring a blistering 75.8 points per game with four Badgers, led by senior forward Jared Berggren, averaging in double figures. No. 10 Florida and No. 14 Creighton have handed Wisconsin its two losses.

One concern for Bennett involves his still maturing team’s response to the notoriously raucous Kohl Center crowd in Madison. Wednesday’s showdown will be Virginia’s first away from John Paul Jones Arena since a season-opening 63-59 loss to George Mason Nov. 9, and it comes against a Badger team with a startling 49-5 home record in the last three-plus seasons.

“We’ve got a young team, we’ve got a lot of young players,” Mitchell said. “I’m ready of that aspect of the challenge, it’ll be something to see if the young guys … can adapt.”

The Cavaliers are striving for their third straight victory in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge after vanquishing Minnesota and Michigan in each of the past two seasons.

Virginia has thrived in the perennial two-day event, but the rest of the ACC has struggled. After winning the Commissioner’s Cup for the challenge’s first 10 years of existence, the ACC has yielded the last three to the Big Ten.

Overall, Bennett believes his players are beginning to fit the mold of his ideal style of team — the same mold that Ryan has employed to direct the Badgers to three regular season Big Ten championships and an NCAA Tournament appearance in each of his 11 seasons at the helm.

“We can’t afford a lot of mistakes the way we play, so we kind of have to play a little closer to the vest and it doesn’t always look the best,” Bennett said. “I can sense when guys are starting to understand what it means to get the ball reversed, to look inside, to make the other team work — all things that for us equate to good basketball.”

Mitchell even implied that the protege, in many respects, is beginning to eclipse his Wisconsin mentor.

“I’m actually a little more confident in our system … and a little more confident in our players, so I feel like it will bode well for us,” Mitchell said.

Tip-off is at 7 p.m. ESPN2 will televise the contest.

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