By Jeff White
GREENSBORO, N.C. — UVa wrapped up its physical preparations for the ACC men’s basketball tournament out of the public eye, in the cozy confines of Fleming Gymnasium.
That’s the 2,320-seat home of the UNC Greensboro Spartans, and that’s where Virginia practiced Wednesday afternoon. The Cavaliers will play on a much bigger stage Thursday: the 23,500-seat Greensboro Coliseum, site of the 57th annual ACC tourney.
In a first-round game that will end or extend Tony Bennett’s turbulent first season as UVa’s coach, his team meets Boston College at noon. The Wahoos (14-15) are seeded No. 8; the Eagles (15-15), No. 9.
Neither had to dust off an old scouting report to prepare for this game. They met March 3 in Chestnut Hill, Mass., where BC never trailed in a 68-55 romp over UVa.
“We were not tough at all,” said freshman Jontel Evans, who’ll start at point guard Thursday. “I don’t know what was going on. Our defense wasn’t physical at all. We just let them push us around the whole game.”
Though little more than a week has passed since that game, much has changed for the ‘Hoos. Senior guard Calvin Baker didn’t play at BC’s Conte Forum, but he was in uniform on the bench, giving Bennett another option in the backcourt.
Baker is no longer with the Cavs. He left the team Monday for personal reasons, meaning most of the point-guard responsibilities will fall on Evans and Sammy Zeglinski, who’ll start at shooting guard against BC.
Of more significance, of course, is the absence of sophomore Sylven Landesberg.
Landesberg was ACC rookie of the year in 2008-09, and he was named second-team all-conference this week. That announcement came Monday, two days after Bennett suspended Landesberg for the rest of the season, citing the 6-6 swingman’s failure to meet his academic obligations.
The ‘Hoos went into their regular-season finale without Landesberg, and he missed the Feb. 28 game against Duke with a thigh injury, so they’re used to playing shorthanded.
Their performance Saturday was their finest in three weeks. With no Landesberg, UVa battled then-No. 22 Maryland to the final minute before losing 74-68 at John Paul Jones Arena.
“When you lose a leading player, leading scorer, for whatever reason,” Bennett said, “the other guys know there are going to be more opportunities for them, and they have to step up and be assertive and aggressive.”
Against the Terrapins, three Cavaliers scored in double figures — center Jerome Meyinsse (17) and guards Jeff Jones (16) and Zeglinski (14) — and forward Will Sherrill and guard Mustapha Farrakhan added 9 and 8 points, respectively.
Virginia, which ranks 11th among ACC teams in field-goal percentage (42.9), shot 53.1 percent versus Maryland. The difference?
“Just the offense not being so stagnant,” Farrakhan said Wednesday after UVa’s shootaround at the Greensboro Coliseum. “I think we moved the ball well against Maryland. We showed a lot of fight. You could see it in everybody’s eyes that we really wanted that game, and it showed.”
When Landesberg was in a game, the ball often was in his hands. Against Maryland, UVa did “a good job of swinging the ball and playing together,” Farrakhan said. “I think we got away from that a little in that losing streak.”
The losing streak isn’t over yet. It’s up to nine games, the Cavaliers’ longest skid since 1961-62. Still, this team feels better about itself than it did flying home from BC, the recent losses of Landesberg and Baker notwithstanding.
“Truthfully, it’s been real positive,” Jones said. “Nobody’s looking backwards. Everything’s moving forward.”
Solomon Tat, a team captain, has helped keep the mood positive. Bennett marvels at the senior swingman’s leadership qualities. Tat rarely plays, but he’s a huge presence in the locker room and on the bench.
“I’m very proud,” Tat said, “because at this point of the season, guys either give up or keep pushing, and I think the team actually came together and played together [against Maryland], shared the ball, and we were actually into it. I just love it. Coming in here I feel that we have a great chance.”
If the Mike Scott who had 13 points and 9 rebounds at BC shows up Thursday, UVa’s chances will improve considerably.
Scott, a 6-8 junior forward, is the team’s top rebounder and second-leading scorer. In two of UVa’s final four regular-season games, however, Scott failed to score, and he had only 2 points against Maryland.
“When Mike’s consistent, that helps us,” Bennett said. “We’ll need his presence.”
In all likelihood, the Cavaliers will need contributions from everyone in their rotation if they’re to end their losing streak in the ACC tourney and advance to Friday’s quarterfinals. UVa has dropped four straight in the tournament since beating Virginia Tech in a 2006 first-round game.
“Sylven’s out, the leading scorer on this team,” Jones said, “and I know it’s going to be my responsibility, along with other guys on the team, to step it up.”
Farrakhan said: “We definitely gotta pick up a little bit on the scoring, but it feels like we can do that.”
Bennett is more concerned with his team’s defense. BC coach Al Skinner likes to post up guards Corey Raji (6-6, 218 pounds) and Rakim Sanders (6-5, 228), and the Eagles were able to do so almost at will against UVa at Conte Forum.
“They were more physical than us,” Jones said.
Boston College is bigger and stronger than UVa at most positions, especially in the backcourt. That’s not a problem the Cavaliers can remedy with their current lineup.
“We just have to be tough,” Evans said. “Be physical back and be tough with them back.”
Jones said: “You just gotta have a lot of heart out there. Just go out there and be tough. Be mentally tough as well.”
BC closed the regular season with a dispiriting loss at N.C. State, but Skinner’s team has played better over the past three weeks than Virginia.
Given the way they handled a UVa team that included Landesberg, the Eagles have every reason to be confident heading into the rematch. That’s fine with Virginia.
“I definitely think they’ll underestimate us, which is good on our part, because we’re coming out swinging,” Evans said. “We’re not going out without a fight.”