By Jeff White
GREENSBORO, N.C. — The UVa men’s basketball roster shrunk last weekend, when Tony Bennett suspended Sylven Landesberg for the rest of the season, and it shrunk again Monday, when Calvin Baker left the team.
If the Cavaliers are feeling sorry for themselves on the eve of the ACC tournament, it wasn’t apparent Monday or Tuesday at John Paul Jones Arena. The players’ mood was upbeat and their work rate high, and their concentration rarely lapsed.
“They’ve had two spirited practices,” Bennett said. “I hope it carries over.”
It’s spring break at UVa, but Bennett’s players are not acting as if they’d rather be on a beach somewhere. Laughter and good-natured ribbing filled the team bus Tuesday afternoon as it rolled down Route 29 to Greensboro, “I Love You, Man” playing on screens above the seats.
“I think we’re very excited,” senior center Jerome Meyinsse said after practice at JPJ. “During times of adversity, we can either grow apart or come together, and I think we’re really coming together.”
Nobody who saw UVa play then-No. 22 Maryland on Saturday would dispute that. Without Landesberg, who would be named second-team all-ACC two days later, the Wahoos battled the Terrapins to the end and, if not for a controversial call by official Jamie Luckie, might have won.
In the Cavaliers’ previous six games — all losses — they often weren’t even competitive, but their fighting spirit returned against the Terps.
“I told the guys that I’ve gotten so many positive e-mails from people complimenting the young men on their effort on the floor and their cohesiveness in a tough situation,” Bennett said Tuesday at JPJ. “And I just said, ‘Keep that up.’
“They did it yesterday in practice. They did it today. We know we’ve got work to do, but they worked hard.”
After starting 5-2 in the ACC, U.Va. imploded. The ‘Hoos dropped their final nine regular-season games, the second-to-last of which was at Boston College. The rematch is Thursday in the opening game of Bennett’s first ACC tournament.
At noon, No. 9 seed Virginia (14-15) meets No. 8 seed BC (15-15) at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“We feel like we lost a lot of tough games,” Meyinsse said. “If three or four of those go our way, we’d be in a different situation. But we still have a chance. We still have games to play, so we’re just being positive and looking forward to Thursday.”
Baker, whom Bennett named a team captain early in the season, along with Meyinsse and Solomon Tat, went through the Senior Day ceremony before the Maryland game, and his departure was unexpected.
The 6-2 guard from Newport News shot only 31.5 percent from the floor this season — 23.5 percent from 3-point range — but Baker would have given Bennett another option at the point during the ACC tournament.
“It’s just something else that we have to deal with,” Meyinsse said, “but we all wish him the best, and we have to keep moving forward.”
Landesberg, who is unlikely to return to UVa, stopped by JPJ and talked with his teammates Tuesday morning.
In Virginia’s 68-55 loss at BC on March 3, the 6-6 swingman scored 13 points. With Landesberg out, Virginia is likely to start three guards — 5-11 Jontel Evans, 6-0 Sammy Zeglinski and 6-4 Mustapha Farrakhan — with 6-8 Mike Scott and the 6-9 Meyinsse.
The Eagles are taller and stronger than UVa, especially in the backcourt. And that makes defending BC’s trademark Flex offense especially challenging for Virginia.
Boston College’s starters include 6-3, 200-pound Reggie Jackson, 6-6, 218-pound Corey Raji and 6-5, 228-pound Rakim Sanders. Raji and Sanders love to operate in the paint, and they punished UVa at Conte Forum.
The 6-5, 217-pound Tat is the only perimeter player on the Cavaliers’ roster with comparable strength. Tat played a season-high 11 minutes in the regular-season meeting, and he may be needed again Thursday against the Eagles.
“They’re so physical, and when you play them, you know they’re going to do it,” Bennett said. “It’s kind of a battle of wills. Who’s going to impose their will? Is the defense gonna work?”
At Conte Forum, the Eagles exploited UVa’s defensive breakdowns and bolted to a 13-2 lead.
“Early in the game they got a couple transition buckets and offensive rebounds, but they also got a few shots right around the basket,” Bennett said. “You’d rather have them having to shoot the baseline jumper, the top-of-the-key and elbow jumpers, more than those quick flex cuts where they throw it right at the rim and lay it up.”
Virginia had Landesberg in Chestnut Hill, and still lost. If the ‘Hoos are to avenge that defeat and advance to a quarterfinal meeting with top-seeded Duke, they need to make up for the loss of Landesberg’s offense. More important, they need to duplicate the defensive intensity they showed in practice Monday and Tuesday.
“It’s gotta be the little engine that could,” Bennett said.