If you had showed up two hours late for the Virginia basketball game against South Carolina State Tuesday, walked past the scoreboard without looking and went straight to the team's postgame press conference, you would have been hard pressed to figure out that the Cavaliers had won. Again. By 20 points, improving to 3-0 and raising their scoring margin to +76.
Coach Tony Bennett and his players spoke as if they were apologizing to a roommate for paying the rent three days late. They were sheepish, a little embarrassed, and insistent that they could do better in the future.
The words “careless” and “lackadaisical” were used, not necessarily to describe their own play, but to warn against complacency, to describe a team that Virginia might become if they were to stop playing the right way. Press departments across the country should keep the tape from Nov. 18, 2014 — not the game film, but the audio from postgame interviews to show how to handle the media and deflect praise.
So while Virginia had nothing to prove facing a team that finished 9-21 last year, started 0-2 this year and has not made it to the NCAA Tournament since 2003, they proved they are self-aware and eager to improve. For a team grappling with almost unprecedented expectations — they entered 2014 with their highest season-opening ranking since 1982-83 — that is perhaps the most important development for the nation's No. 8 team.
Darion Atkins moved into the starting lineup in place of Mike Tobey; nobody complained. Instead, they both dominated inside, combining for 18 points and 12 rebounds. After the game, Atkins declined to address the swap and instead focused attention on the team's rebounding “woes.”
“We just need to be more rebounding-minded,” he said. “In practice it's been really good. I don't know what's going on. We need to have everyone crash and get back to rebounding.”
What's going on is the Cavaliers out-rebounded the Bulldogs, 46-26. Even against a physically overmatched opponent, that is a significant margin.
Justin Anderson rained 3-pointers like they were layups again, knocking down three of them to lead the Cavaliers in scoring for the third time in as many games. With 10 long balls this season, he is already one-third of the way to his total from all of last year with 27 regular season games remaining. So how much has his shooting improved? “Just a tad bit I guess,” Anderson said with a straight face.
“We just want to make sure we go out and give max effort no matter what,” Anderson said. “I think we have a team once again this year [where] every night it could be someone different. Malcolm got going today and that was beautiful to see him get his rhythm again.”
Malcolm Brogdon scored 17 points, matching Anderson for the team lead. Surely Brogdon, the preseason All-ACC standout and consensus leader of one of the nation's best teams, would take a moment to congratulate himself on the breakout performance?
“I thought we came out a little bit flat in terms of energy,” said Brogdon, who speaks flatly but is more active than the energizer bunny on the floor. “I thought we could've come out more lively, and we got it going toward the middle of the game.”
Well at least he'll admit that they got it going eventually.
“Then we had a couple letdowns in the second half.”
This aura of humility would seem like a facade if it were not so readily apparent that the Cavaliers approach games with that do-or-die mentality. They may not have brought their “A” game on execution; they did have offensive lapses, occasional defensive breakdowns and some carelessness with the ball. But Virginia brought effort and desperation to a game where it would have won even if players had spent pregame warm-ups eating nachos and drinking beer.
On the defensive end, the team was in mid-season form in the first half. On the game's opening possession, Bulldog Ty Soloman swung an uncontested pass to the left wing to set up the offense. Teammate Karon Wright, his head facing the rim, never saw the ball coming and it sailed over his head and out of bounds to give Virginia possession.
Based on how dominant the Cavalier defense was, that may have been one of the Bulldogs' better possessions of the opening period.
South Carolina State did not have a field goal for the first 4:58 in the game and then had just one in the final 9:17 of the first half. During those two stretches they missed 11-of-12 shots and had four turnovers. The Bulldog offense for much of the night resembled a bowling ball trying to squeeze through a cheese grater — no matter what approach they tried, they were never going to find any holes big enough to slip through.
If not for four consecutive 3-point shots by Butler to open the second half, the Cavaliers would have won their third consecutive game by 28 or more points to open the season.
So Coach, impressed with your team's defense and overall effort?
“We put them on the line a little too much, but I thought we did a good job guarding the ball screens," Bennett said. "We need to limit the three-point field goal percentage and not allow them to get into rhythm."
He also credited Atkins' and Anthony Gill's energy, lauded the team's ability to seal gaps and remain active and said the team did a good job sticking to the game plan defensively. Compared to the tone of the evening, that modest admission was roughly equivalent to Terrell Owens dancing on the Dallas star to celebrate a touchdown.
While Virginia may have had nothing to gain and everything to lose against the underdog Bulldogs, they showed a hunger that will prove crucial once ACC play begins. With the team facing its first true test Friday against George Washington, you can count on the team bringing “max effort” and showing at least subtle improvements in on-court substance.
Just don't expect them to talk about it.