November 26, 2014

Virginia has carried last year's strong defensive play into this season with a similar level of success.

The eighth-ranked Cavaliers look for their best start in a decade Friday night when they face La Salle in the Barclays Center Classic.

Virginia's defense has been stifling through five games, holding opponents to an average of 44.6 points - even better than last year's mark (55.7 ppg) that ranked as the best in the country. The Cavaliers (5-0) are among the best nationally in opponent field goal percentage (29.3), blocked shots (37) and, most notably for coach Tony Bennett, defensive rebounds (147).

Mike Tobey leads the team with 7.8 rebounds per game, grabbing a career-high 16 Tuesday in Virginia's 79-36 win over Tennessee State.

"I don't get too much into stats, but an important area for us is defensive rebounding," Bennett said. "I do think, judging by the first few games, that (Tobey) has improved in that. He's going after the ball. We're going to need that with the size we'll be going against throughout the year."

Tobey, a seven-foot junior, is one of several players whose roles have increased following the graduations of Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris, who combined for 18.8 of Virginia's 66.2 ppg last season.

"It was really a focus for me in the offseason to work on my rebounding," Tobey said. "I think before Tuesday I was doing a little better than I had been in the last two years, but I wanted to improve more because I feel like that's important for our team."

Justin Anderson has also elevated his play, averaging 16.8 points on 59.6 percent shooting after scoring 7.8 on 40.7 percent from the field last season. He hit all seven of his field goal attempts Tuesday, including five from 3-point range.

A win would give Virginia its first 6-0 start since 2004-05, but it won't come easy against a La Salle team that is 4-0 for the first time since a 7-0 start in 2005-06.

The Explorers have succeeded despite some offensive struggles, averaging 62.3 points while connecting on 36.6 percent of their shots to rank among the worst in Division I.

Jordan Price scored 30 points and Jerrell Wright added 19 as La Salle shot a season-best 46.6 percent in a 73-60 win over St. Francis (NY) on Tuesday. The Explorers had shot under 36 percent in each of their first three contests.

"We know some days our shots are going to fall, some days they're not," said Wright, who has shot 37.5 percent through four games despite a career 56.6 field goal percentage. "We just have to take pride in our defense. That's one thing we just talk about all the time, defense."

Price (19.3) and Wright (10.3) are the only two players for La Salle averaging in double figures.

To head coach Dr. John Giannini, though, the only number that matters is the 4-0 record.

"I am just big on effort," Giannini said. "You guys can think what you want about the offense or turnovers or this or that. But when you have consistent effort from a bunch of guys who do their best all of the time and people have a hard time scoring against them. That's a coach's dream."

La Salle has fared well against ranked opponents in recent years, winning three of its last six matchups. The Explorers most recently knocked off No. 12 Kansas State on March 22, 2013.

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