By Jeff White
MINNEAPOLIS — For about 48 hours — part of Friday, all of Saturday and part of Sunday — members of the UVa men’s basketball team were able to get reacquainted with Charlottesville.
Then the Cavaliers were off again, their destination this time the land of the Replacements, Vikings, Twins, Timberwolves and Golden Gophers.
UVa hasn’t played at John Paul Jones Arena since Nov. 15, and Tony Bennett’s team won’t play there again until Dec. 7. But the Wahoos are nearing the end of an extended stretch of games away from Charlottesville.
The first was Nov. 18 at Stanford, where UVa lost 81-60. Then came three games at the Maui Invitational in Hawaii, where the ‘Hoos opened with a 43-point loss to Washington, rebounded to whip Oklahoma a day later and, then in the fifth-place game, blew an early lead and fell 70-58 to Wichita State.
The next test for Virginia (3-3) comes Monday night in this city, against 15th-ranked Minnesota (6-0) in the opening game of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. ESPN2 will televise the game from the Golden Gophers’ historic Williams Arena, better known as “the Barn.”
“It’s a unique place,” said Bennett, a former assistant coach at Wisconsin, one of Minnesota’s Big Ten rivals. “The floor is raised, and it’s one of the major home-court advantages in college basketball.”
The Cavaliers will fly home late Monday night. Before their Dec. 7 date with Radford at JPJ, however, the ‘Hoos must head back on the road, this time to Blacksburg, where they’ll open ACC play Dec. 5 against Virginia Tech.
“It’s definitely the hardest stretch of non-conference games that I’ve ever faced in my career, especially tonight,” senior forward Will Sherrill said Monday morning.
“I think we’ve gotten a lot better on this road trip. Our win-loss record [on the trip] is not very good as of right now, but I think we’re playing much better now than we were when we went out to Stanford. That said, we’re facing probably the toughest opponent we’re going to face so far this year tonight, so we gotta try to translate that improvement into a win.”
Minnesota coach Tubby Smith has eight players listed at 6-8 or taller, including Ralph Sampson III, a son of the former UVa great. This Sampson is a 6-11, 241-pound junior who averages 13 points and 6.8 rebounds.
“They got a lot of big guys, and even their [shooting guards] and [small forwards] crash the board hard,” said Sherrill, the Cavaliers’ second-leading rebounder (4 per game) behind 6-8 senior Mike Scott (16.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg).
“So we’re going to have to get all five guys to come in and defensive rebound. And then on our offense we’re going to have to move their big bodies around.”
This game may mark the 2010-11 debut of Gophers guard Devoe Joseph, who averaged 9.4 points and 3 assists last season. Joseph has been serving a suspension that might get lifted before UVa and Minnesota clash.
Still, at least one of the Gophers’ starters — point guard Al Nolen (foot) — will miss the game because of an injury. Another, 6-7 small forward Rodney Williams (6.7 ppg), is questionable with an ankle sprain.
Nolen averages 9.2 points and 4.2 assists and, in Smith’s estimation, is perhaps the Big Ten’s best on-the-ball defender.
“You lose a lot,” Smith told reporters in Minnesota. With Nolen out, the Gophers “don’t have anybody else that could put that kind of defensive pressure on anyone.”
After arriving home late Friday afternoon, the Cavaliers went straight to the practice court at JPJ. They convened again the next day, and it “was real sloppy,” Bennett said Sunday.
“It was just a poor practice. Today we came back and we were more focused. Hopefully it was the jet lag [Saturday], and we’re getting it all out of our system, but I just want them to keep improving and build from some of the things that happened in Maui and know that we’ll tested.”
Bennett reminded his players after practice Sunday that they would be representing the ACC in Minneapolis.
Minnesota beat then-No. 8 North Carolina on Dec. 19. If the Cavaliers are to do the ACC proud by upsetting the Gophers, they’ll have to improve on the defensive end. In Virginia’s four games away from JPJ this season, its opponents have shot 50.6 from the floor and made 53.7 percent of their 3-point attempts.
Washington hit 17 of 26 shots from beyond the arc against UVa.
Of his team’s frequent lapses on defense, Bennett said, “I think a lot of it’s offensive rebounds and transition baskets where they compromise your defense. You’ve got to take away something, and what’s been frustrating in our struggles is we haven’t really taken away the lane or second shots or transition, so they’ve got us trying to over-help,” which leaves players open on the perimeter.
Virginia hasn’t played since Wednesday, but Bennett said he felt the effects of the cross-country travel over the weekend. The players did too, but Sherill said that shouldn’t be a factor Monday night.
“After being home, and getting two good nights of sleep there, and then last night getting a good night’s sleep here, I think everyone’s back to normal,” Sherill said.
Things won’t feel completely normal for the ‘Hoos, of course, until they finally play at John Paul Jones Arena again.
“I definitely look forward to getting back home and playing in front of our fans,” Sherill said. “But this is a good stretch for us to show ourselves what we’re made of, and hopefully we can get some wins out of these last two road games.”