Bennett: 'Hoos Have Found Identity in ACC Play

Tony Bennett's basketball team is off to the best start to ACC play the Virginia program has seen in decades, and at least one opposing coach has said the Cavaliers might be the best team in the conference.

But for Bennett, possibly the biggest development over the past month has been his team finding its identity.

"We were searching a little bit, early," Bennett said Thursday. "How we had to play. Who we were. The style of basketball."

Bennett's team -- which began the season ranked nationally in both major polls -- went 9-4 in non-conference play, capped by a 35-point loss at Tennessee. That loss came exactly one month ago Thursday.

"Those things reveal what you need to know," Bennett said. "And I think your players have to be strong enough to make those adjustments and improve, and they have been."

UVa has won seven of its first eight games in ACC play, with all seven wins coming by double-digits. Their plus-15.5 scoring margin is best in the league, while the Cavaliers rank fourth in the conference in scoring offense, and their scoring defense ranks second.

Bennett has shortened his team's rotation since the start of conference play, and he says players have done a better job of settling into their roles and taking care of the ball. He also credited seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell for stepping up as leaders.

"I'm seeing Joe and Akil, as seniors, realizing, "This is our time. This is our time to lead." And it's their team," Bennett said. "And I see them trying to hold each other accountable. And that just has to say there. That's what the better teams do, and hopefully we're evolving into that more and more."

The Cavaliers will put their four-game winning streak on the line on Sunday at Pittsburgh. At 6-2, the Panthers enter February a game behind UVa in the ACC standings.

And Bennett hopes the lessons from that loss at Tennessee a month ago will continue to propel his team.

"You always play hard. You think you're prepared," he said. "But some adjustments came, and the guys said "This is going to be, it's going to take everything. And we can't assume. If we're not sharp, if we're not doing the little things well, it's going to be a real difficult year." And I think the guys got that."

"Just because we're doing that doesn't guarantee us success," Bennett added. "But it does guarantee us the chance at success. And that's all you can ask for."

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