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Posted at 7:09 AM ET, 12/ 3/2010

Cavaliers look to shore up transition defense against Virginia Tech

By Steve Yanda

When Virginia Tech played at Virginia last season, the Cavaliers held the Hokies to 10 points in nearly the first 15 minutes of play. With 5 minutes, 20 seconds remaining in the first half, Virginia Tech called a 30-second timeout, trailing 22-10. At halftime, the Hokies led, 28-27, and 11 of the 18 points they scored in the final five minutes before the intermission came in transition.

Virginia lost that game in overtime, 76-71.

The Cavaliers suffered from poor transition defense in the first half of Monday night's game at Minnesota, as well. Senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan and freshman guard Joe Harris combined to shoot 6 for 6 from three-point range before the break, but it often seemed like as soon as either of them made a basket, the Golden Gophers were at the other end of the floor making one of their own.

"That discipline and that habit of not standing and watching or not being in the corner when the point guard drives, you've got to have other guys rotating back when the ball's leaving the hand," Coach Tony Bennett said. "But how hard your (post players) run back after going for an offensive rebound is equally important because you're trying to hold when they're running back with their bigs, your guards are back, and thats when you have to get back quick and scramble.

"We talk a lot about the first three steps. They've got to be hard sprints. You know, it echoes in my head, 'Don't have a home run trot in transition.' When you score a basket, sometimes guys like to pose for their shot or look into the camera and do all that, that doesn't work at our level or for our team. The ability to scramble back with a great sense of urgency, that is something that needs to be conditioned and really practiced. It's been addressed, and it will continue to be. It was better in the second half, and that gave us a chance."

Early in the second half, Minnesota beat Virginia in transition yet again, leading to a Cavaliers timeout during which Bennett issued his players an ultimatum: Get back quickly on defense or be pulled from the game. Virginia's transition defense improved from that point forward, and the Cavaliers ended up claiming an 87-79 upset victory.

Ideally, Bennett said, two of the three perimeter players will get back the quickest in transition defense. The third perimeter player is what Bennett called "the wild card." If that player can compete for an offensive rebound, then he stays near the opposing basket. If not, he races downcourt with the other two Virginia guards on the floor. The Cavaliers' two forwards follow as soon as grabbing the offensive rebound no longer is a viable pursuit.

"It's a five-man deal," Bennett said. "It's not just, okay, point guard, two man, you get back. We try to really sprint back. I've heard Stan Van Gundy, the coach of Orlando, talk about this and I thought it was a good comment. He says, 'You better decide whether you're going to be a good offensive rebounding team or you're going to be a really good transition defensive team. You can't be both. So choose what fits your program or what's important to you and be as great at it as you can.' And we haven't been. We're trying to choose to be a defensive transition team or a team that gets back on D."

Virginia's failure to get back efficiently in transition defense has led to other problematic issues. The Cavaliers are allowing opponents to shoot 45.8 percent from three-point range, which ranks them behind all but one of 345 Division I teams in the country. Minnesota made 9 of 22 three-point attempts (40.9 percent) Monday night, and that actually made Virginia's three-point field goal percentage defense go down.

Bennett said that when his team is slow to get back in transition, the pack-line defense never gets set, and that causes breakdowns that enable uncontested looks on the perimeter. He likened Virginia's defense -- when it doesn't get set -- to an accordian.

Say an opponent beats a defender going toward the basket or a defender misses an assignment because he's not in position, the other defenders suck inward to help and the opponent kicks the ball out to a teammate, who has an open outside look.

"When played well, (the pack-line defense) is usually solid against the three-point shot," Bennett said. "Statistically, in the years when I was an assistant and in our strong years at Washington State we were always near the top of our conference in three-point percentage defense. My last year at Washington State with a young team and last year here and so far this year we haven't been.

"You can't take away everything. You have to take away something, and defensively, where our breakdowns have been, I think, for much of this season have been not getting our defense set in transition. We've had trouble getting back and really getting stops. And the premises of the pack is to try to jam things up, pack in, take away the lane and make people shoot contested shots. We live with tough, contested shots ... It's the uncontested (shots), the breakdowns in transition, that are hard to stomach."

In case you're curious, here is how Bennett's teams have fared in three-point field goal percentage defense during his years as an assistant and as a head coach:

As an assistant at Wisconsin
1999-2000 -- 35.1 percent (8th in the Big Ten)
2000-2001 -- 31.3 percent (1st in the Big Ten)
2001-2002 -- 33.1 percent (3rd in the Big Ten)
2002-2003 -- 32.2 percent (6th in the Big Ten)

As an assistant at Washington State
2003-2004 -- 37.2 percent (9th in the Pac-10)
2004-2005 -- 29.5 percent (1st in the Pac-10)
2005-2006 -- 31.0 percent (1st in the Pac-10)

As the head coach at Washington State
2006-2007 -- 32.0 percent (1st in the Pac-10)
2007-2008 -- 34.5 percent (4th in the Pac-10)
2008-2009 -- 40.0 percent (7th in the Pac-10)

As the head coach at Virginia
2009-2010 -- 34.5 percent (8th in the ACC)
2010-2011 -- 45.8 percent* (12th in the ACC)

* Through seven games.

By Steve Yanda  | December 3, 2010; 7:09 AM ET
Categories:  Men's Basketball  
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