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Cavaliers on cusp of ACC's elite

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Season-ticket sales for the upcoming campaign have already broken records. Their preseason ranking in the USA Today Coaches Poll sits in the top 10, among college basketball's elite. The Oct. 5 meet the team event hosted larger crowds than ever before, with lines winding around the floor of John Paul Jones Arena as more than 1,000 fans waited to take photos and receive autographs. Virginia hasn't hosted a Midnight Madness practice in its eight-year-old arena before -- but it might need to start.

Throughout Charlottesville, the excitement and anticipation over the Cavaliers' record-setting 2013-14 season -- and the year ahead -- are palpable. But one group is ignoring the hype: the Cavaliers themselves.

Coach Tony Bennett's message to his squad is simple: The past is the past. The future is uncertain. And only the Cavaliers can control whether that means a better -- or worse -- outcome.

"I've used the quote that a high school coach told me, 'Always thankful, never satisfied,'" Bennett said. "I don't think you can not address last year, but you also can't sit there and live in it. It's that idea of our program continuing to embrace what they have to do. We need to be just as hungry and have that worker mentality."

While the Cavaliers entered most of last season's early matchups as an underdog, their No. 8 national ranking heading into their first game at James Madison on Nov. 14 is proof of a program on the rise. Indeed, the numbers don't lie: Virginia is the only ACC team to improve its win total each season over the past five years.

Now, under Bennett, a sixth-year coach who signed a seven-year contract extension with the Cavaliers during the offseason, Virginia will look to defend its conference championship and improve on its 30-7 record.

But this season may be about more than results. With another strong conference finish, can the Cavaliers move one step closer to establishing themselves as a dominant program among the powerhouses of the ACC?

Last season's squad stumbled a few times early, losing nonconference games to Wisconsin, VCU, Green Bay and Tennessee. After losing to Duke on Jan. 13, the Cavaliers went on to win their next 13 games, claiming the regular-season ACC title. They beat Duke in the ACC tournament title game, becoming the first team in Cavaliers' history to win both the ACC regular-season and tournament championships. The Hoos earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament but lost a two-point game to Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen.

This season's team will be without two of the biggest stars of 2013-14, sharpshooter Joe Harris and defensive stopper Akil Mitchell, both of whom graduated. How the team fills those holes -- and how the remaining upperclassmen shift their respective roles -- will be an early indicator of where the Hoos are headed.

"[This season] we'll do it differently," Bennett said. "But we'll still have some good guys, and some of those new guys will have great opportunities. But how efficient they play, how unselfish they play while running our offense to score will determine it."

Veteran players have returned stronger and leaner after a summer working with UVa strength coach Mike Curtis, whom Bennett calls "the best strength coach in the country." Sophomore point guard London Perrantes, whose steady hands and consistent play last season were a key part of the Cavaliers' success, said he worked on his midrange jumper, 3-point shot and leadership skills. Junior standout Malcolm Brogdon, who may see a lot of double-team defenses like Harris experienced, emphasized versatility and depth. Center Mike Tobey, whose play was marked by inconsistency last season, focused on getting stronger. Junior forward Evan Nolte concentrated on coming off screens, moving, shooting and ballhandling. And Justin Anderson, last season's ACC Sixth Man of the Year, has returned slimmer and stronger, improving his quickness and endurance.

"Filling in the gaps for Joe and Akil -- for Akil, we need Anthony [Gill] to play a huge role and fill in that gap," said Nolte. "Lots of offensive boards that we need to make up and be active on the offensive and defensive end. With Joe, he was our best shooter, so trying to be as consistent as we can shooting the ball. I think playing to our strengths and everyone staying in their line and playing their roles will help fill that in."

The Cavaliers also have a five-member freshman class that includes redshirt freshman Devon Hall. This is another marker of what may become the norm for Bennett's programs: While players like Harris, Mitchell, former Cavalier Mike Scott and Perrantes were needed early and often in their first years of play, this first-year class may not have to jump into action as quickly.

"This year, the freshman, we'll need a few. And if they're ready, they'll be a part, but if not, they'll have time," Bennett said. "When you have more upperclassmen in your program, that's a healthier spot to be in."

How the 45-year-old coach and his staff fit these pieces together, as well as how quickly the freshmen adapt to his defense-heavy, slower-paced play, will tell a lot about his program, both where it stands and where it's headed.

"Tony is a good teacher. He plays good fundamental basketball, and because he's a good guy at a great school and an outstanding coach, he's been able to attract really good talent and he knows how to use that talent," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "What he's done is not coach a team; he's built a program. And not many people do that."

A program whose cornerstone, the pack-line defense, has become nationally known. The Cavaliers led the nation in scoring defense last season, allowing opponents just 55.7 points per game. Teaching the defensive style to new players takes time, as does adjusting to a bigger, more physical team like this season's Cavaliers. Still, Bennett is a patient teacher, rarely screaming at his players on the sideline but instead shaking his head or offering advice one-on-one. As last season proved in the latter half, once his players find their rhythm, they are difficult to stop.

"The details are so present when you watch their defensive stuff -- the way they move, the way they help, the footwork, the extension of the arms, the hands, the heads that are constantly moving," Davidson coach Bob McKillop said. "And then you go to the offensive end and you see the same partnerships, cohesiveness. They see the game very, very well. As a result, they become tough to guard. I'm a great believer that set plays are easy to spot, principles are not. His offense is based on a really fundamentally sound belief in principles."

One of which is to remain focused and ignore the buildup swirling around the program.

"We rarely talk about the hype outside," Perrantes said. "We clock in, work hard, and that's nothing different than last year. The coaches help with that a lot; they're very humble. We're hard workers, and we've got to learn how to play with a bull's-eye on our back."

They will meet that bull's-eye with not only a strong defense but also a balanced offense whose scoring average has increased slightly in each of the past four seasons. As a result, the Cavaliers have become more exciting to watch, as the rowdy crowds inside JPJ Arena -- and increased television time -- have shown.

Bennett said that at times last season the Cavaliers showed flashes of what he hopes for his teams: steadiness, soundness and control to "impose their will on the game." They will aim for that again this season and perhaps, in the process, become a consistent top contender alongside the major programs of the conference for years to come.

"I read about a golfer that was trying to make the tour school, and he said expectations or pressure means you've done something good and you're close to something really good," Bennett said. "I thought, 'That's a good way to look at it.' In this regard, you've done something well, but perhaps you're close to something really good."