CHARLOTTESVILLE – During his 14 seasons leading Virginia basketball, Tony Bennett has faced rival Virginia Tech 25 times, competing against four different Hokies coaches.
In Mike Young, Bennett has an opponent he couldn’t help himself from gushing about this week.
“He’s a heckuva coach. I like him. I respect him,” Bennett said this week. “I know you’re probably not supposed to say that stuff. It’s a rival. He’s lasted in this profession. His team plays the right way.”
Young feels the same way.
“I admire the matchup. I admire the rivalry. I admire playing those guys,” said Young. “I admire their team, always have. They play the right way."
Virginia and Virginia Tech meet Wednesday night, two college basketball programs built on many of the same principles, but headed in opposite directions this season.
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Young, who is 2-3 against UVa, said the matchup isn’t much of a mystery.
“There’s nothing goofy. There’s no smoke and mirrors,” he said. “I think both teams know exactly what the other’s going to do. It’s a matter of playing good basketball, being sound.”
The two teams go into the first of two regular-season meetings between the rivals on decidedly different trajectories.
No. 10 Virginia (13-3, 5-2 ACC) has won three in a row and five of its last six entering Wednesday night’s showdown at John Paul Jones Arena. The Hokies (11-6, 1-5), conversely, are enduring another midseason slide, having lost five in a row.
As the teams prepare for the rivalry game, the things that are going well for UVa are the same things the Hokies are struggling with.
While Virginia guard Reece Beekman is getting healthier game by game after an ankle and hamstring injury, Tech has played the past four games without guard Hunter Cattoor (elbow). The Hokies have missed Cattoor’s 3-point shooting, perimeter defense and, maybe most of all, his toughness.
Cattoor is expected to make his return Wednesday against the Cavaliers, but Young said that won’t solve all of his team’s problems.
“As important as he is to us, he is not the cure-all,” said Young.
Why has Virginia been winning? In its last five games, it’s been hitting its 3-point shots. The Cavaliers are 48 for 110 from beyond the arc, a success rate of 43.6%. With Beekman back, his penetration has helped get open perimeter looks for teammates, including Armaan Franklin, Ben Vander Plas and Isaac McKneely
“Offensively you just try to get good shots,” said Bennett. “Sometimes you’re in rhythm and guys are knocking down shots and it opens up the floor and it allows penetration to occur. I think Reece getting close to full strength has helped us.”
Virginia leads the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio and, in the last five outings, has dished out 85 assists and committed just 46 turnovers.
Why have the Hokies been losing? During their five-game slide they’ve shot just 27.5% from 3-point range, going 28 for 102.
The normally ball-sound Tech has committed 61 turnovers during its losing streak.
“That is so unusual around here. We don’t turn the thing over,” said Young. “We all know we can’t do that and expect to win. We’re not shooting the ball very well right now so it has kind of compounded into some struggles.”
Getting Cattoor back should help, but Young said the team needs to get Darius Maddox going offensively, find open shots for Grant Basile and get Sean Pedulla back on track.
Pedulla, who ranks sixth in the ACC in scoring, averaging 16.8 points per game, is just 26 for 80 shooting the past five games.
A year ago, the Hokies dropped their first four ACC contests, opening 2-7 in league play. But Young’s club won nine of its final 11 regular-season games, then won four straight in Brooklyn to claim the program’s first ACC tournament championship.
But Young said he’s cautioned his team, which lost three starters – Keve Aluma, Storm Murphy and Nahiem Alleyne – from that roster, against taking too much confidence from last year’s remarkable turnaround.
“I’ve warned them against that,” said Young. “There are parallels, but that’s not one I think this team can draw open. To rattle off three, four, five, what have you, we’ve got to play more sound on both ends of the floor. Are we capable? Absolutely we’re capable. We’ve done it.”
Mike Barber (804) 649-6546
@RTD_MikeBarber on Twitter