That is going to leave a mark... Monday night's contest against Tennessee started out ugly, and it just got worse for the Virginia basketball team. The Volunteers opened up a double-digit lead just minutes into the game, and the gap would only widen. UVa allowed a trio of 20-point scorers for the first time in the Bennett era, and the Hoos were humiliated, 87-52, to drop to 9-4 on the season.
The 35-point beat down was the program's worst defeat since dropping a 106-63 decision to Washington in first round of the 2010 Maui Invitational.
Justin Anderson led Virginia in scoring for the third game in a row, tallying 11 points on an otherwise forgettable night. On a positive note, Monday's loss saw Virginia shoot a season high, 82 percent from the free-throw line.
Was it a mere aberration? Or was the drubbing at the hands of Tennessee a sign of things to come? Either way, this is not how head coach, Tony Bennett and those close to the Virginia program envisioned the 2013-14 season going, 13 games into the campaign.
The out of conference schedule is in the books and the Cavaliers will begin the 18-game ACC grind at Florida State on Saturday at 5:00 p.m. By nightfall, one of two streaks will have come to an end. Virginia has won five consecutive ACC openers, dating back to former head coach, Dave Leitao's final season in Charlottesville. On the flipside, the Hoos have lost 10 in a row to the Seminoles in Tallahassee, with the last win coming back in 2001.
Florida State was picked to finish ninth in the ACC by the media, but the Garnett and Gold surprised many by their impressive play in the out of conference. The Noles obliterated VCU in Puerto Rico and knocked off previously undefeated, UMass right before Christmas. FSU's three out of conference losses were respectable, as the Noles suffered an overtime heartbreaker to Michigan, fell by one point to rival, Florida, and dropped a game at Minnesota in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge. Florida State's resurgence has been due to a pair of veterans finding their form and incredible depth in the low post. Let's take a closer look at what Virginia will be facing in its ACC opener.
The Florida State backcourt
The Seminoles have tremendous depth in the backcourt, as four of FSU's guards average 25 minutes or more per contest. Florida State's length in the backcourt has given opposing teams fits, with nobody under 6-3 on the roster. The Noles elect to start defense over offense, as the team's top-two scorers come off of the bench.
Ian Miller has been the catalyst on offense, averaging 14 points per contest. Virginia fans know Miller all too well, as the Charlotte native buried a cold-blooded three-pointer to lift to the Seminoles to a narrow win in John Paul Jones Arena two years ago. The 6-3, 198 pound Miller is shooting 44.3 percent from the floor and 32 percent from downtown. Miller loves the outside shot, as nearly half of his attempts from the field are from beyond the arc. Miller is also outstanding from the line, shooting 87 percent from the charity stripe. The senior is lightning quick off of the dribble, and the Cavaliers must find a way to slow him down to prevent Miller from beating them up and down the court.
Sophomore, Aaron Thomas is a spark off of the bench, averaging 12.9 points per contest. Thomas has scored in double figures the last four games, and is shooting just above 50 percent for the season. After netting only one three pointer in the first nine games, the sophomore has expanded his range, hitting 55 percent from the outside in the last three contests. The 6-5, 195 pound guard does a nice job on the boards, averaging 3.5 per game.
Fellow sophomore, Devin Bookert has been FSU's starting point guard since the final 11 games of the 2012-13 campaign. Bookert entered this season on the Bob Cousy Award watch list, and has performed well thus far, averaging 7.7 points per game, while dishing out 3.3 assists. The 6-3, 185 pound Bookert is excellent from the line, shooting 84 percent for the season.
Starting guard, Montay Brandon has seen his role dramatically increase this season, going from averaging 3.3 points in 2012-13, to 9.8 this year. At 6-7, 216 pounds, Brandon is a matchup nightmare, and has made a living posting up smaller guards. The sophomore is shooting just north of 44 percent for the season, and is the top rebounder coming out of the backcourt, averaging 5.8 per contest. If there is a weakness in Brandon's game, it is his free throw shooting, as the High Point, North Carolina native is hitting just 61 percent of his freebies.
The Florida State frontcourt:
Leonard Hamilton's teams have always been loaded with depth in the low post, and this season is no exception.
Senior Okaro White is Florida State's top scorer down low, averaging 12.8 points per contest. White is FSU's most versatile athlete, with the ability to handle the ball like a guard, and score from all over the floor. The Clearwater, Florida native is hitting 40 percent of his attempts from the outside, and is another Seminole that shoots north of 80 percent from the foul line. White is having a decent year rebounding the ball, averaging 6.7 boards per game. His incredible wingspan and ability to play multiple positions makes White a player to watch, and it will be interesting to see how Bennett choses to counter the 6-8, 204 pound veteran.
Sophomore, Boris Bojanovsky is the tallest player in FSU basketball history, at 7-3, 240 pounds. Bojanovsky took his lumps while he was still learning the game last season, but has rebounded nicely, averaging 6.8 points per contest so far this year. The Slovakia native is an excellent defender, and has nearly equaled his block total from a season ago.
Robert Gilchrest is another big body up front, at 6-9, 220 pounds. The London, England native played sparingly last season, but has worked his way into the starting lineup this year. Gilchrest shoots 40 percent from the floor, but is not a threat to score in bunches, averaging just 5.7 points per contest.
Sophomore, Michael Ojo is an option off of the bench, at 7-1, 292 pounds. Ojo is incredibly strong and the FSU staff is excited about his potential, but the Nigerian is still developing his offensive game. The sophomore is averaging 4.1 points and 5.6 rebounds.
The Florida State head coach
In a decade full of turnover in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Hamilton has been a steady hand at Florida State. The 65 year-old Hamilton is in his 12th season in Tallahassee, compiling a record of 228-146 with the Noles. Hamilton has built FSU into one of the top programs in the ACC, highlighted by a conference tournament crown in 2012. It took him six seasons to reach his first NCAA tournament at the school, but Florida State's patience paid off, as Hamilton led the Seminoles to the Big Dance four straight times between 2009-2012. The three-time conference coach of the year (ACC and Big East) has nearly 30 years worth of coaching experience at the college and professional levels, including stops at Oklahoma State (1986-1990), Miami (1990-2000), and the Washington Wizards (2000-2001). The Tennessee-Martin graduate was also an assistant at Kentucky between 1974-86, and helped lead the Wildcats to three Final Fours, and one title.
What we'll be watching
The first few minutes:
The Cavaliers will have had five days to dwell on Monday's demoralizing loss in Knoxville. UVa is winless in true road games and came out sleepwalking in both of those contests. The opening few minutes of Saturday's game will go a long way in demonstrating the teams mindset and if the Hoos will be competitive against the Florida State.
Presence in the paint:
Virginia was dominated in the low block against Tennessee on Monday night. While the Seminoles don't have the bulk or the experience of UT's big men, they certainly have the length to compete with anybody in the post. UVa has done a nice job on the boards this season, outrebounding 10 of its 13 opponents. The Hoos cannot afford to be pushed around down low if they hope to leave the Donald L. Tucker Center with a win…. Much easier said than done.
Virginia's defense as a whole:
There have been plenty of offensive stinkers of the Bennett era, but Monday night might have been Virginia's worst defensive effort in the past five years. UVa's defensive strategy of leaving Tennessee wide-open on the perimeter didn't seem to workout too well, as the Vols hit 11 three-pointers and shot an alarming 61 percent from the beyond the arc. While Florida State's offense works from the inside out, the Noles have plenty of capable shooters from long-range. Virginia's pack line defense is built to not allow easy points inside the paint, which at times gives way to open looks from downtown Will Bennett elect to extend the defense at times against the Seminoles?
The starting lineup:
The Cavs have used six different starting lineups, with the only constant being Joe Harris. London Perrantes started several games at point guard between late November and early December, but has since been replaced by Malcolm Brogdon, who has struggled at times with his handle. Junior, Darion Atkins has started the last three games and will likely be relied upon for his defense inside the paint against FSU. Florida State's height and length in the frontcourt could call for more minutes from center, Mike Tobey. Anderson's offensive game and ability to defend multiple positions will likely earn him a spot in the starting five on Saturday. It is unlikely that UVa will elect to trot out a four-guard lineup against FSU, where the Cavs have been the most successful offensively this year.
The senior class
Other than going 0-for in tough out of conference games, the biggest disappointment so far this season has been the lackluster play of both Harris and Akil Mitchell. The two All-ACC talents from a season ago have not lived up the billing and have clearly regressed from their junior years. With all of the preseason hype surrounding this squad, many forgot that there were only three members of this Virginia basketball team with more than two years of college basketball under their belts. This team has lacked toughness and at times, an identity in tough situations this season. It is a new year and the start of conference play would be an excellent time for the two seniors to return to form.
The bottom line
In all the hysteria following Monday night's disappointing outcome, the Hoos are just one game worse than where they were at the start of ACC play last year. The glaring difference is, that last season's out of conference resume' included losses to George Mason, and RPI killers, Delaware and Old Dominion. If the Cavaliers can take care of business in conference play, they will not be looking over their shoulders at any debilitating defeats from November and December.
However, Virginia's performance in the non-conference left much to be desired, as the Hoos missed out on every chance at a signature win. Yes, the Cavs have three victories against the RPI top-100, but the way UVa fared against NCAA tournament caliber teams is a cause for concern.
There is certain a disconnect with this year's group, as the expanded rotation and the abundance of talent has seemed to backfire at times. Is it the heightened expectations? Do certain guys not fit into Bennett's style of play? Are there too many mouths to feed? The Cavaliers are certainly entering conference play with more questions than answers.
There is no rest for the weary, as three of UVa's first four league games are on the road, which will only add pressure to an already difficult situation. Virginia's biggest strengths are its length and depth, but unfortunately, the Seminoles shine in those areas too, which makes UVa's first ACC test a tough one. Winning cures all, and this one would be huge for the Cavaliers' RPI and for the overall morale of the team. However, the Hoos would need a complete 180 from what happened on Monday night, and asking for that in less than a week's time maybe a little too much.