By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CLEMSON, S.C. — On Thursday, they rested.
With a game at Clemson looming, UVa men’s basketball players had plenty to work on. But the Cavaliers had played Wednesday night — their third game in five days — and desperately needed a break.
“We were all tired mentally, physically,” sophomore swingman Sylven Landesberg said. “Just a lot of games.”
Not just games, but losses, each disheartening.
Since beating N.C. State 59-47 at John Paul Jones Arena on Feb. 3, the Cavaliers have dropped four straight. UVa lost in overtime to visiting Wake Forest on Feb. 6, by six points at Virginia Tech on Feb. 13, by 19 at Maryland on Feb. 15 and by 19 to Florida State at JPJ on Wednesday night.
“We had the schedule set up favorably, I think, in the early part of the ACC,” first-year coach Tony Bennett said after the FSU game.
“And now, obviously, with the postponement of the Maryland game and kind of how it’s gone, it’s been more challenging. Being in there at Tech and against Wake at home and not coming away with those wins, I don’t know what that does to psyche of young men. I hope it doesn’t [crush them].”
The team reconvened Friday afternoon at JPJ, where Bennett put his players through an uptempo practice. They got more work in Saturday morning at Littlejohn Coliseum in a shootaround that was equal part practice.
At 4 p.m. Saturday, UVa (5-6, 14-10) meets Clemson (6-5, 18-7) at Littlejohn. If nothing else, the ‘Hoos should enter more rested than they were for recent games.
“Ideally, you wouldn’t give them a day off, because it only gave us one day to prepare [for Clemson],” Bennett said Friday afternoon. “But as a staff we talked about it, and we felt physically, mentally, we had to give them a day off. There just wasn’t a choice. With the postponement, it got sort of jammed in there.”
For various reasons, UVa has not responded well to its revised schedule.
The Cavaliers were to have met Maryland in College Park on Feb. 10. A snowstorm forced the postponement of that ACC game, however, and it was rescheduled for Feb. 15 — two days after the Wahoos’ game in Blacksburg and two days before their date with FSU.
This will be the only regular-season game between UVa and Clemson. A season ago, they met twice, with each winning at home.
The Cavaliers’ victory in 2008-09 was more unexpected. They’d lost eight in a row heading into their clash with No. 12 Clemson at JPJ, but pulled off an 85-81 shocker in overtime.
Landesberg led the ‘Hoos with 23 points, and Mike Scott and Sammy Zeglinski added 18 and 15, respectively.
The key to beating the Tigers?
“Just breaking that press,” Landesberg said Friday. “If you get past that press, a lot of things come easier.”
Beating Clemson’s press is “definitely easier to do at home,” Landesberg said. “Littlejohn is so loud, it’s going to be tough to hear.”
The Cavaliers have faced full-court pressure for stretches this season, but this will be the first time they’ll try to break it from the opening tipoff. Look for Landesberg, Zeglinski and freshman point guard Jontel Evans to handle much of the ballhandling responsibilities Saturday, at least early in the game.
“This is where the preparation time comes in,” Bennett said. “You got a day to prepare for it. You have to try to attack the press and then make good decisions on the back of it. But they’ll come at you.”
When the ‘Hoos successfully break the press, Bennett wants them to be aggressive in the front. If UVa has a 3-on-2 or 2-on-1, it will try to capitalize on its advantage.
“Absolutely,” Bennett said. “You should do that against any team that’s pressing.”
Virginia’s shootaround Saturday marked Bennett’s first visit to Littlejohn in nearly 20 years. He played there as a sophomore guard at Wisconsin-Green Bay. Clemson, led by Dale Davis, beat Green Bay 75-68 on Dec. 8, 1990.
UVa’s associate head coach, Ritchie McKay, is more familiar with Tigers coach Oliver Purnell’s trademark press and the current atmosphere at Littlejohn. McKay was head coach last season at Liberty, which led 71-67 late before losing 80-75 at Clemson.
McKay directed much of Friday’s practice at JPJ, instructing UVa players on how best to handle the Tigers’ defense.
“Clemson varies their presses,” McKay said Saturday. “For what we want to do and our personnel, we were just trying to point out a couple of things that were constant in press attacks but accounted for [Clemson’s] variations.”
Virginia has five regular-season games left, three of which are on the road. The second half of the Cavaliers’ ACC schedule is tougher than was the first, and Bennett acknowledged as much Wednesday night in Charlottesville.
Still, the schedule is out of UVa’s control, and “I want our guys to not take step backwards,” Bennett said. “If we’ve gained some ground, then fight to hold that ground, not go backwards. And that’s the challenge. And that’s where we’re at.”