By Jeff White
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Jontel Evans got his first look at Wake Forest’s basketball arena Friday night, when UVa practiced in an otherwise-empty Lawrence Joel Coliseum.
“I kind of like it,” Evans said afterward. “It’s kind of nice here.”
Those seats will be filled Saturday, and members of the ACC’s first-place team, Evans included, aren’t likely to find the place as pleasant then.
Virginia (3-0, 12-4) meets Wake (3-2, 13-4) at 4 p.m. The Demon Deacons are coming off a convincing win over defending NCAA champion North Carolina — in Chapel Hill, no less — and the 14,000 or so fans who show up Saturday figure to be stoked.
Evans, a freshman from Hampton, will make his third start as a Cavalier. It will be his first away from John Paul Jones Arena, where the Wahoos have won seven straight, but the 5-11 point guard says he won’t let the crowd intimidate him.
“I’m used to that back home, going into other gyms, people thrashing me and everything,” Evans said. “I’m mentally ready.”
Whether he’s physically ready for his Wake counterpart, Ishmael Smith, is still to be determined. Smith, a 6-0, 175-pound senior, averages 13.1 points, 5.9 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.8 steals. On the court, he’s a blur.
“I just know he’s fast as lightning,” Evans said. “He’s really stepping up this year, being a good point guard and running his team.”
His strategy Saturday against Smith?
“The coaches just want me to contain him,” Evans said, “because I’ve heard he’s not that great of a shooter.”
Indeed, Smith is shooting a miserable 44.4 percent from the line and 23.5 percent from 3-point range. From the floor, he’s hitting 43.1 percent of attempts, and most of his points come on slashes to the hoop.
UVa’s first-year coach, Tony Bennett, watched the TV broadcast of the Wake-UNC game Wednesday night. At one point, Bennett heard the announcers say that, according to Wake coach Dino Gaudio, Smith is faster from end line to end line than Chris Paul and Jeff Teague were.
“That struck me like, ‘Wow, that’s fast,'” Bennett said.
He came to UVa last spring from Washington State, so Bennett is not as familiar with Smith as most coaches in the ACC are. But Bennett has been impressed with what he’s seen so far.
“It seems like he really lets the game come to him,” Bennett said. “Maybe his percentage from 3 isn’t there, though he made one or two [against UNC], but he’s got really good touch going to the basket. I’ve seen that, where he draws a crowd.
“You’ve got to be mindful of him and you’ve got to, to the best of your ability as a team, sort of wall him off and not let him get to that paint as easily as he makes it look. Because I know teams are desperately trying to keep him out, but he just finds a way in there.”
Evans, who was a standout tailback at Bethel High School, is the swiftest Cavalier and the team’s best on-the-ball defender, and he’ll open the game on Smith.
Still, Bennett said, “I don’t think you can say one guy is just going to lock [Smith] up and shadow him and that’s it. Your team defense has to try to work against him, being mindful, certainly, of their other weapons.”
The Deacons’ size rivals that of an NBA team. At center, Wake’s options include 7-0 senior Chas McFarland (6.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg), 6-11 senior David Weaver and 6-11 sophomore Tony Woods.
At power forward is 6-9 sophomore Al-Faruoq Aminu, an All-America candidate who’s likely to be an NBA lottery pick if enters the draft this year.
“Everybody who plays [the Deacons] has to be conscious of blocking out, keeping bodies on them, guards helping with the rebounding,” Bennett said, “because sometimes the bigs will have their hands full trying to just keep those big horses off the glass.
“They’re athletic in different ways, strong and long. So those are the kinds of things that you’re going to have to be mindful of with them, and it’ll be important that our defense is good, and if our bigs are having to always step up or step across to try and keep Smith or other players out of the lane, that’s going to be tough on the rebounding, because they’ll lose position. So it’ll test you a lot of ways.”
The Cavaliers, who were picked to finish 11th in the ACC, are the only one of the 12 still unbeaten in conference play. But success can be fleeting, and Bennett raised his voice several times Friday night to remind his players that if their focus and effort wane Saturday, Wake will hammer them.
Teams such as UAB and Georgia Tech — both ranked when UVa met them (and beat them) — might have underestimated Bennett’s club. Going forward, the Cavaliers can expect to have their opponents’ full attention.
“I’m aware of that,” Evans said, “but if we keep doing what we’re doing, our success will continue.”