PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas — After Dick Bennett was honored in a ceremony unveiling the inaugural class of the Kohl Center Legends Walk in mid-October, the former University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach stuck around and watched the Badgers practice that afternoon.
He later relayed his impressions of Greg Gard’s team to his son Tony, the coach at Virginia. Dick’s takeaway after watching UW: “They’re pretty special.”
Now, Tony Bennett will get his own up-close view of the No. 25 Badgers (5-0), who play the No. 4 Cavaliers (5-0) in the title game of the Battle 4 Atlantis. Tipoff at Imperial Arena is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday on ESPN.
It’ll be a great measuring stick for UW, which has remained perfect through the first two weeks of the season against some good — but not great — competition.
The Badgers’ best win to date was a 78-58 decision over Oklahoma in a semifinal on Thursday. The Sooners are No. 46 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings as of Friday morning.
A win over Virginia, ranked No. 3 in KenPom, would provide a significant profile boost as UW tries to get back to the NCAA tournament after missing it last season for the first time in 20 years.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, appear to have the parts to be — borrowing a phrase from Dick Bennett — pretty special. Virginia has been a No. 1 seed in three of the past five NCAA tournaments and is trending in that direction again.
As usual, Virginia is among the top defensive teams in the country. It’s currently ranked No. 2 in the KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency ratings after finishing in the top five in that category in each of the previous five seasons, including No. 1 in 2017-18.
Plus, the Cavaliers have three legitimate scoring threats in sophomore forward DeAndre Hunter (16.2 points per game), junior guard Ty Jerome (14.6) and junior guard Kyle Guy (12.8).
Virginia doesn’t have a big rotation, but there’s quality to the depth. Bennett brought size off the bench in 6-10 Jack Salt and 7-1 Jay Huff and true freshman Kihei Clark, a 5-9 freshman, provided a boost with nine points and five rebounds in 30 minutes during a 66-59 win over Dayton on Thursday.
Bennett said he likes how Clark is able to pester opposing point guards.
“He’s still growing and learning,” Bennett said, “but he appears to me to be a winner and I thought we need that.”
The 6-7 Hunter, who’s in his third year in the program, is Virginia’s X-factor for a variety of reasons. Hunter, who had a broken wrist and missed Virginia’s shocking loss to Maryland-Baltimore County in the opening round of the 2018 NCAA tournament, scored a career-high 23 points against Dayton.
Hunter’s versatility gives Bennett a variety of lineup options. Virginia was able to go small down the stretch against Dayton because Hunter and Braxton Key, a 6-8 junior who transferred from Alabama, are able to guard multiple positions.
“I can switch ‘1’ through ‘4’ and maybe sometimes guard the ‘5.’ Offensively, I can bring the big man out of the paint and have our guards drive and attack,” Hunter said. “So it really helps us a lot.”
Hunter, who averaged 9.2 points as a redshirt freshman last season, spent the offseason working on his ball-handling and shooting. He hit a big 3-pointer late in the Dayton game and is 7 of 12 from beyond the arc so far this season.
“His showed his versatility again (Thursday) with his ability to score in the post, some post ups, hitting some 3s, some drives, drawing fouls and then defensively,” Bennett said. “He’s certainly an important part and I’m happy to see his hard work and his game continue to improve.”
This will be the fourth meeting in seven seasons between the Badgers and the Cavaliers. Virginia has gone 2-1 against UW in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge during that span, including a 49-37 decision in Charlottesville a year ago.
Bennett and Gard are friends who worked alongside one another for two seasons on Bo Ryan’s staff.
“It’ll be an opportunity to really go and compete against a program that has meant a lot to me and has done a lot for my future,” Bennett said.
“I think when competition starts you get after it,” he added. “You respect them, you know how good they are, you know how sound they are and you know how well you’re going to have to play to be successful. I pull for those guys all the time. And then when you play against them, you try to beat each other’s brains out as everyone says.”
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A couple leftovers from UW’s win over the Sooners, and a couple things to watch against Virginia:
— UW senior center Ethan Happ had the understatement of the day during the postgame news conference when talking about sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice, who made seven 3-pointers and finished with a career-high 25 points.
“Meech was on fire today,” Happ said.
In fact, Trice has been on fire for most of the season. He’s now 20 of 33 (60.6 percent) from 3-point range and is averaging a team-high 19.6 points through five games.
Trice missed all five of his attempts from beyond the arc a day earlier against Stanford. None of the eight teams in the Battle 4 Atlantis field shot well from the perimeter on the first day — they were a combined 28.3 percent (41 of 145) from 3-point range — and some of that probably has to do with the setting.
Imperial Arena is a converted ballroom with odd lighting.
“The court was different, the setting, the height (of the ceilings,” Trice said. “But it was just a day that the shots go in. Yesterday the shots didn’t go in, but today they fell.”
Gard said he’s been happy with Trice’s shot selection. And while I went heavy on this in my UW-Oklahoma game story, one quote I didn’t use was Trice talking about what the Badgers have to do if opponents double-team Happ.
“We definitely expect teams to go two at the ball with Ethan when he has it,” Trice said. “I think that opens up a lot of guys and he can find the open teammates. He’s a really, really good passer after the double team but he also can score out of the double team, so I think that makes him a dual threat and the guys on the outside just have to knock down shots.”
Trice and the Badgers did so Thursday, going a sizzling 63.6 percent (14 of 22) from beyond the arc.
— One other thing I didn’t get to in my game story was how UW did a better job rebounding in the second half.
Oklahoma killed Florida on the glass in the opener and had a 22-15 advantage on the Badgers in that category at the break.
UW ended up winning the rebounding battle 33-31. And while some of that had to do with the fact that Oklahoma could hardly grab defensive rebounds if the Badgers weren’t missing shots, Gard also pointed out that UW limited the Sooners to two offensive rebounds after halftime after allowing seven in the first half.
“That told me we were doing a better job of being more physical and maintaining contact, initiating contact, tracking down loose balls,” Gard said. “I thought they beat us to some 50/50 balls early, especially the first 15 minutes of the first half.”
— UW hasn’t had to deal with much stress early in the season, but that obviously could change today against Virginia.
The Badgers have trailed for only 10 minutes, 45 seconds of a possible 200 minutes this season, and never by more than five points. Their biggest deficit in the Bahamas has been three points.
— I’m curious to see how the matchups play out in the UW-Virginia game.
If the Cavaliers go with the same starting lineup as the Dayton game — three guards, a wing and a center — that could lead to Happ guarding Hunter. Happ did a good job in the opener against Stanford’s KZ Okpala.
UW senior Khalil Iverson will also probably get a shot at defending Hunter at times. Iverson has been really solid this season and has 11 points, 20 rebounds, two blocks and three steals in the two games of the tournament.
— One last thing to watch is the fatigue factor. This will be the third game in as many days for both teams. I thought Happ, in particular, looked gassed in the first half against Oklahoma.
This is going to be a low-possession game, but it’ll be a physical 40 minutes. It’d be huge if senior Charlie Thomas and sophomore forward Aleem Ford, who’s played 11 minutes in two games since returning from injury, could provide some positive minutes off the bench in the frontcourt.