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Tony Bennett Q & A, part 2

In part two of my interview with men's basketball coach Tony Bennett, he discusses the balance and depth his team has displayed, the UNC-Wilmington reality check, the defensive work ethic he has worked to instill within his players, some memorable moments from the year thus far and the 'Hoo Crew's new tradition of yelling during opponent free throws.

I think we can see some players growing up before our very eyes. Do you think [sophomore guard Sammy] Zeglinski in particular has benefited from your experiences as a guard?

He's a third-year sophomore ... I think he's had a good offseason, working hard on his body with our strength coach Mike Curtis, who's great. He's played some one and some two for us this year ... He's responded well, and it seems like he's improved and taken a step ahead. He's a tough kid and he's a team-first guy as these guys are, and I think that's helped. The fact that I played at guard in college and had some NBA time, I don't know if that helps him or not - hopefully it does, but I couldn't say for sure.

Anyone else you want to point out? Obviously, you don't want to short change anyone. The whole team's playing well.

It's been good that [sophomore forward] Sylven [Landesberg] has drawn so much attention as a player. We keep challenging him and he's doing it - becoming a complete player with his passing, his rebounding and trying to defend. You see [senior center] Jerome {Meyinesse] stepping up, [junior forward] Mike Scott, [junior guards] Mustapha [Farrakhan] and Jeff Jones, I don't want to leave anybody out because at different times, different guys have stepped up. Jontel [Evans] is giving us lifts. [Sophomore forward] Assane [Sene] has. That's what unique about this team. What's challenging as a coach is there's balance, there's some depth, there's not a ton of separation. Sometimes it's hard to settle on a consistent rotation. But at times, it's also been a strength of ours because there's been guys that hit big shots and have big games for us they maybe have in one game but didn't in another. So hopefully we'll keep becoming more consistent but using that balance to be as good as we can be.

It seems like one of the things that was missing a little bit against UNC-Wilmington was the bench production that you guys got against Georgia Tech, especially from Farrakhan and Jones.

I think that game is a realistic indication of who we are. Hopefully we're a little better than that ... When we're focused and locked in, we can play with high-level teams and if we're a little off our game or we're not focused, we're very susceptible. I think that comes down to knowing that about yourself and just trying your hardest to sure up the areas that you feel a little vulnerable in and keep being as good as you can be. That's always a reality check. UNC-Wilmington was banking shots and we had a lot of breakdowns, but for their record, they were good.

You've been known for tight D and a deliberate offense that works for good shots. Is this team fitting your mold or are you adapting your Xs and Os a little bit?

You always adapt to each team. At times, we've touched it defensively - have been where we want to be - and defense takes a long time. I'm talking guys after their second, third year - it just becomes instinctual and it gets better over time ... But with this year, that's a work in progress. And that never rests; you always have to keep working at it. You never just arrive and say, 'We're there.' Offensively, you certainly work for good shots, you give guys freedom to make plays, try to be as sound as you can and obviously be aggressive when you can ... whatever gives us the best chance to be successful. I think, at times, we've been really aggressive and trying to get out and score, and at times, we've had to work for shots. I think you have to have a balance to be as good as you can be. I think a balance is important - you can't be all one way or all the other unless it's required for a certain game. You always look at your personnel and try to adapt to it.

You already talked about JPJ a little bit and the students. I am part of the 'Hoo Crew and one of the things that was on the first 'Hoo Crew e-mail is that you wanted everyone to not yell until the end of an opponent's free throw, right before they shoot. Somehow, we've had one of the best "free throw defenses" this year, which is odd.

Are we still doing that or not? I don't even know? Is that not happening?

We're kind of doing it. I think we kind of forgot when we came back from break.

I just remember, I spoke to the 'Hoo Crew; they said, 'Is there anything we can do?' When I was at Washington State, they asked the same thing, I said, 'Maybe it would be different if the opposing team's getting ready to shoot a free throw, and everybody would be really quiet and right as they are in their shot motion for everybody to go, 'Ah!' Maybe that would be different than just the constant steady noise, like a spike [in noise].' I said it like, that's what we tried at Washington State. I didn't even know that they took it seriously. At the game ... I haven't caught that. If it's working, awesome.

We kind of are. I know the last couple of games the opponents have actually shot free throws pretty well. At first, we were at the top in the nation in free throw defense, which isn't even a real stat.

No, but it's a good stat. I think sometimes it's who you're fouling or if you're putting them on the line a lot.

What's been your most memorable win this year?

There's a bunch of them. The comeback against Cleveland State was the first comeback win we had. That was great. Beating a ranked opponent here for the first time, UAB, was special. Being down on the road, down 10 at N.C. State and coming back and finishing that game out. The Georgia Tech game - every win you're rejoicing because you know how challenging and hard it is to get a win. I like them all ... But the comeback ones certainly are memorable and when you beat a quality opponent and the crowd's going [wild]. That last play against UNC-Wilmington, we didn't play great but coming up with a win - I can probably find something good in every win and something bad in every win and vice versa.

What challenges lie ahead for this team, and what do you still have to improve on?

We have to get better in a lot of areas. We have to become a better defensive team for the competition we're going against. Teams are shooting a pretty high three-point percentage against us and we've got to try to make that come down a little bit. Just eliminate breakdowns when teams get easy looks and become a real good transition defensive team because everyone in this league can get down the floor so fast. We have to keep working on making them play against our set defense and that's where we can settle in and become a better defensive team. But when they're getting you in transition or you're turning it over and they're getting easy lay-ups, that's something on the defensive end we need to work at. Make the opponent earn their scores on defense, get them to shoot as many contested shots [as possible] and offensively keep working to get as many good looks as possible, whether that's early in the offense or whether we've got to work at it.

Is there anything you want to say to the students or alumni who are maybe trying to come to the next home game against Virginia Tech? It's obviously a big game.

I'm pleasantly surprised at the passion - first of all, the numbers in which the students are showing up and second, how enthusiastic they are. I love it. They're getting JPJ jumpin'. That's cool. When you take a job - I'm here to try and rebuild a program that hasn't had a lot of recent success - you sort of envision what it can be like and, sooner than I thought, the students and the fans are giving me a picture of what it can be like atmosphere-wise at this facility. It can be imposing. I had a friend of mine come from Washington State to the Georgia Tech game. They came and they were just like, 'This is awesome. This place with the crowd in it - you can get something pretty special going here with this atmosphere.' And as a coach, you know how important home-court advantage is. Through thick and thin, I hope they'll stick with us because this is a long-range deal. Certainly we're off to a great start, and we're gonna keep fighting it, but that they'll just keep seeing, hopefully, the effort put forth by the kids on the floor. And I hope our players will be the kind of student-athletes that they'll see around Grounds that are just everyday guys that are real thankful for the opportunity they're getting because I think that will turn people on to pulling for us and rooting for us.


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