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Bennett introduces freshmen

First recruiting class offers toughness, shooting, acknowledges difficulties of pack line defense

November 21; Charlottesville, VA USA; Virginia head coach Tony Bennett. Virginia defeated Oral Roberts University 76-55.
November 21; Charlottesville, VA USA; Virginia head coach Tony Bennett. Virginia defeated Oral Roberts University 76-55.

The six members of coach Tony Bennett's first recruiting class have plenty to offer to the Virginia men's basketball team. During yesterday's media day, Bennett lauded James Johnson's physicality and competitiveness, Billy Baron's toughness, K.T. Harrell's composure, Akil Mitchell's versatility and potential, Joe Harris's shooting ability and completeness and "Buffalo" Will Regan's intangibles.

But for as long as Bennett extolled the virtues of his fresh crop of basketball talent, the praise came to an abrupt and inevitable halt once the second-year coach addressed his bread and butter: defense.

"I don't think they have a clue defensively what it will take to play the way we need to," Bennett said.

That's not to say Bennett's renowned pack line defense is an entirely foreign concept to his new players, however. In late June, Bennett's father and legendary former coach, Dick, paid his son's team a visit and discussed the principles of the defense he created.

"The guy is a Hall of Fame coach," said Harris, a 6-foot-6 guard. "You can't really get better than that. All of us were trying to soak up everything the guy was telling us - especially on the defensive end because we all know coach Bennett stresses defense. We wanted to really learn and soak in the pack line defense."

Harrell, a 6-foot-4 guard, characterized Bennett's defense as a "protect-style defense," which emphasizes clogging the lane and tough on-the-ball play. But even though Harrell and the other freshmen may understand the basics of the defense, they added they know there are challenges associated with mastering its nuances and translating their knowledge to the court.

"It was kind of tough to grasp at first - it still is - because the overall footwork, where you're supposed to be, what you're supposed to do at times, it's tough," Harris said. "Especially for some of us, if you played zone in high school, you really didn't have to work that hard on the defensive end."

Defense may not be the only work in progress. Bennett didn't land any recruits from the state of Virginia, something he said will come with success. Instead, the freshmen come from California, Rhode Island, Alabama, North Carolina, Washington and New York. Adjusting to life at the University, then, is a tall task in its own right. Living in Kellogg dormitory is a good first start, as the team will have to become a tighter group almost by necessity.

"They can't just take an hour, two-hour ride home," Bennett said. "When they're that far away, that is important - that relationship that they have and bond that they form."

On the court, the freshmen are already gelling with upperclassmen. Johnson, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound forward, has hit the boards with senior Mike Scott and junior Assane Sene, while Baron has had the unenviable matchup of guarding sophomore Jontel Evans during practice. Although the team only has practiced together for a short amount of time, Evans forecasted the impact the freshmen will have on the team and predicted that Harrell will contribute immediately.

Harrell "doesn't talk much, let's his game do the talking," Evans said. "Silent assassin - I'm gonna look for him to have a big season this year. He can put the ball in the hoop, he's strong, he can defend - he's a great competitor."

It remains to be seen who will see the most playing time during their first year - Virginia's season does not begin until Nov. 12 - but Harris said the freshmen are aware they are laying the foundation for Bennett's program.

"When we were all getting recruited by coach Bennett, he emphasized everything he wanted to do at the University of Virginia," Harris said. "We believe in him; we believe in each other, too. We want to make something special happen at the University of Virginia"

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