The great poet Pete Townshend once wrote: “Who Are You?” Among his lyrics: “Oh, I really want to know. C’mon tell me who are you?”
Virginia coach Tony Bennett has probably posed that question to his basketball team every day since experiencing the second-worst beating in his five years as CEO of the Cavaliers last Monday night at Tennessee. It was a shocking 35-point loss that left Bennett grasping for answers and turned the collective stomachs of Wahoo Nation, watching from their couches in disbelief.
Tennessee walloped UVa wire-to-wire. Billed as a headliner between two of the heavyweights from the ACC and SEC, the Cavaliers more resembled a plodding boxer, eyes swollen from the Vols’ precise punches, half-blinded, swinging wildly in hopes of hitting something.
Virginia has been licking its wounds since that trip to Knoxville, trying to regain its self respect. Problem is, the Cavaliers’ next two opponents have been two of the most difficult teams for Bennett’s squads to beat the past four years: Florida State and Wake Forest.
This might be difficult for Wahoo fans to digest, but Virginia is a combined 2-9 against FSU (1-5) and Wake (1-4).
On Saturday, the Cavaliers face the Seminoles in Tallahassee, where they have lost 10 straight times and haven’t won there since Feb. 17, 2001. Wake comes to Charlottesville on Wednesday.
Bennett was clearly frustrated that night on Rocky Top. Afterwards, he looked as bewildered by the outcome as the few sportswriters in the room.
It was then that he repeated Townshend’s verse.
“Who are you?” Bennett said he asked his team. “We’ve got to determine who we are.”
He has certain non-negotiable items on his checklist of what it takes to win. Everyone knows the first and foremost is suffocating defense. Everything starts there. And, then, there’s the physical play, too, which seemed to have been left behind in Charlottesville for the trip to Big Orange Country.
Virginia’s All-ACC player Joe Harris, who hasn’t been performing like one so far this season, was stung by the lopsided loss to the Vols and seemed to know exactly what it will take to get this team back on track.
“That’s what talented teams do to you when you don’t show up to play,” said Harris, who was 2-for-9 shooting for seven points in 31 minutes against Tennessee.
The senior guard complained that too many of the Cavaliers were trying to make individual plays instead of playing together as a team and mentioned that everyone on the squad needed to buy into what Bennett and the rest of the coaching staff has preached to them daily.
“We don’t have enough talent to keep up with all the teams we play from here on out,” Harris surprisingly said to writers. “We need to realize that. The way we’re going to win games is by playing the way Coach Bennett and the staff has ingrained in us and that’s team basketball, offensively and defensively. We’re riding a fine line because we don’t have the talent to match up with everybody.
“It’s not on coach, it’s on us,” Harris continued. “We’ve got to quit worrying about the outside stuff. It seemed early on we were getting all this praise. We were supposed to be this and that, but really we haven’t proven anything. We need to start realizing our identity and the way we’re going to win games. We have to be unselfish offensively and help each other out defensively.”
It might be safe to conclude that Harris was spitting out a lot of the verbage that Bennett gave them after the embarrassing loss. Players do that a lot, kind of regurgitate to media what the coaches said after a win or a loss, particularly after a bad loss.
Certainly, Virginia doesn’t have a roster dotted with NBA players, enough talent to where Bennett can just roll out the ball and say, “go get ‘em.”
Still, there was enough talent there to win more than 20 games last season and beat Duke. I get what Bennett was telling his team, that it can’t just show up and win.
Part of being successful is just showing up and the Cavaliers didn’t do that in Knoxville.
Bennett hardly recognized what he saw on the floor along with 16,000 Vols fans.
“It looked like we were stuck in mud,” the UVa coach said. “We’re not going to win any games in the ACC if we’re not going to answer the bell.”
Virginia might just strike out in Tallahassee. That wouldn’t be a surprise. What matters though, is pride. Are the Cavaliers going to be that pummeled prize fighter who remains in the corner and throws in the towel, or come out swinging?
Tennessee’s coach and players may have respected the Cavaliers more than they did themselves.
Coach Cuonzo Martin kept talking about how physical Virginia was and what a great defensive team that he and his staff prepared for. Martin made great offensive calls that cut UVa’s defense to ribbons and left the Wahoos bewildered.
Martin provided a blueprint for ACC teams to use against Virginia, a blueprint that has been Xeroxed from South Beach to Beantown to South Bend.
“We wanted to play our game,” Martin said. “We didn’t want to come down and make 10 or 11 passes.”
The Vols found holes in UVa’s Pack-Line and exploited them, established the tempo early and dictated all night long. Virginia had no answers. It didn’t hurt that Tennessee was on fire offensively, something that had not been the case this season, but UVa’s “stuck-in-the-mud” effort that Bennett aptly pointed out, contributed.
Bennett’s Cavaliers can get well in its ACC opener if it plays the way it has been trained and reverse negative trends against FSU and Wake, teams that should not hold the upper hand on the Wahoos.
Depends on what group of Cavaliers show up, or if they show up.
Who are you, Wahoos? Who, who? Who, who?
We really want to know.