By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa’s upset of then-No. 24 UAB represented its first significant victory of the season, and Tony Bennett wasn’t sure how his players would handle the accolades that follow success. So after the Dec. 30 game at John Paul Jones Arena, Virginia’s first-year coach quoted a proverb to them.
The crucible tests silver, the furnace tests gold, but man is tested by the praise he receives.
“I’d never heard it, but that was something I really took to heart,” the Cavaliers’ leading scorer, sophomore swingman Sylven Landesberg, said after practice Friday.
The Wahoos (2-0, 10-4) are receiving plenty of praise these days. They’ve won six straight games, two of which were against ranked opponents. Dick Vitale is Tweeting about the ‘Hoos, and a ESPN.com columnist singled them out Thursday.
“I guess I’d rather have this be an issue than not,” Bennett said with a smile after practice Thursday.
UVa hosts ACC rival Miami (1-2, 15-2) at 8 p.m. Saturday. The 23rd-ranked Hurricanes have been in Charlottesville since early Thursday morning. They bused up from Blacksburg after losing 81-66 to Virginia Tech in a game that wasn’t as close as the score would suggest.
“They’ll be so hungry to come in here,” Bennett said.
Virginia played Wednesday night, too. At JPJ, the Cavaliers ambushed No. 20 Georgia Tech, rallying to win 82-75. And when North Carolina lost at Clemson later that night, UVa suddenly found itself alone atop the ACC standings.
The Cavaliers are 2-0 in league play for the first time since 1994-95, and for a team picked to finish 11th in the ACC, that’s heady stuff. But Bennett says his players must keep perspective.
“Look, we’re two games into the ACC. Let’s be real,” he said. “We were down 10 at N.C. State. We performed well. I just want them to keep improving and take the right kind of confidence from good performances and know that when they do it the right way they can play with anybody and have a chance.
“But when we aren’t focused or we’re not sharp or competitive, then it becomes a different issue. That’s part of understanding who you are.”
Landesberg said Bennett “always tells us, ‘Don’t get too high on yourself. Don’t get too low. After a low, keep your heads up, but after a win don’t be too hyped or too big about yourself.’
“Everybody’s feeling very good right now. We’re first place in the ACC for now, but we’re also willing to work at getting better and trying to keep it going this way.
“I think we all know the ACC’s a tough conference. On any given night you could lose to anyone. You’ve got to bring it every night.”
Against Georgia Tech, Landesberg scored a game-high 22 points, and junior guard Mustapha Farrakhan added 15 off the bench, along with 4 assists and 3 steals. Senior center Jerome Meyinsse contributed 8 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists and played inspired defense against 6-9 Gani Lawal.
Assane Sene’s numbers weren’t as impressive: 2 points and 6 boards in 15 minutes off the bench. But the 7-0 sophomore from Senegal plays with palpable energy, and at one point Wednesday night Sene dived to save a ball that was going out of bounds, sliding into the front-row seats in the process.
“I loved it,” Bennett said. “I like it all, but we have to at home win the hustle plays, the X-factor, and he helped with that. We had guys on the floor. That’s contagious. That was well done, and that was good stuff.”
The second semester starts soon at UVa, and many students are back in town. That should swell the crowd Saturday night at 14,593-seat JPJ, where the ‘Hoos are averaging only 8,620 this season.
With a victory, UVa would surpass its 2008-09 victory total and, of course, maintain its lead in the ACC. So there’s plenty at stake for the ‘Hoos.
“You gotta protect your home court,” Meyinsse said.