By Jeff White
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Freshman guard Billy Baron grew up down the road in Rhode Island, and he’s been to Boston College’s basketball arena. For his classmates on the UVa men’s team, however, their visit to Conte Forum will be their first.
Second-year coach Tony Bennett’s veterans also will face a learning curve Wednesday night when Virginia (1-2, 10-7) plays ACC rival BC (3-1, 13-5). The Eagles have familiar names on their roster — Reggie Jackson, Joe Trapani, Corey Raji and Biko Paris among them — but their coach is new, and so is his system.
Gone are Al Skinner and the flex offense that was his trademark, a system that often forced opposing guards to cover their BC counterparts in the low post.
“This year, surprisingly, they’re shooting more 3s,” Virginia senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan said Tuesday at John Paul Jones Arena. “They used to play, like, 15 [feet] and in.”
Skinner’s successor, former Cornell coach Steve Donahue, wants his players to spread the court. A season ago, BC attempted 488 shots from beyond the 3-point arc. These Eagles already have put up 425.
“They challenge you,” Bennett said. “You better guard them, because they can certainly score some points.”
Skinner’s final game as BC’s coach was a first-round loss to UVa in last year’s ACC tournament. But Farrakhan said the Eagles still have “a lot of screens within the offense that they run now, so it’s pretty much like guarding the same type of stuff. They’re still a physical team, so it’s still going to be a challenge getting through the screens, talking through the back cuts.”
What’s most notable about this BC team, though, is not its physicality, but its experience. Of the seven Eagles who average at least 10 minutes a game, four are seniors: the 6-8 Trapani (13.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg), the 6-6 Raji (12.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg), the 6-1 Paris (10.8 ppg) and 6-10 center Josh Southern (7.9 ppg). Two are juniors: the 6-3 Jackson (19.6 ppg) and 6-5 guard Dallas Elmore (2.4 ppg).
“I think their experience factor is very important for them,” Bennett said.
The Wahoos are considerably less seasoned. Bennett’s rotation includes three freshmen — 6-8 Akil Mitchell, 6-6 Joe Harris and 6-4 KT Harrell — and classmates Will Regan and Baron are also viable options. Virginia’s starting point guard, Jontel Evans, is sophomore, and its most experienced player, senior Mike Scott, is out with a season-ending ankle injury.
BC is coming off a one-point loss to ACC foe Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., a game in which Jackson hurt his ankle in the final seconds. (Donahue said Monday that his leading scorer is “going to be fine.) The Eagles also have lost to Big Ten power Wisconsin, to Ivy League teams Yale and Harvard, and to Atlantic 10 member Rhode Island, whose coach is Baron’s father.
The Eagles were picked to finish 10th in the ACC, one spot higher than UVa. That BC is tied for first in the league may surprise some, but Donahue said there’s “a very good basketball IQ among these guys that people probably didn’t realize.”
Virtually everyone realizes how losing Scott has affected Virginia. In the 10 games in which he played this season, the 6-8, 242-pound forward averaged 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds, both team highs. With Scott out, UVa’s rebounding has suffered. Opponents have grabbed an average of 32.6 rebounds per game against the Cavaliers this season, to 32.1 for Bennett’s team.
Bennett said that “gang-rebounding” from his players is a must. Even when Virginia has two post players on the court, it’s “not a dominating rebounding team,” Bennett said, so contributions from everyone are pivotal.
“We need our guards to have real solid four- or five-rebound games,” Bennett said.
The Cavaliers also need to sustain the execution and energy they showed for the first 30 minutes in each of their two most recent games. After building sizeable second-half leads, the ‘Hoos faded each time, losing first to North Carolina at JPJ and then, a week later, to defending NCAA champion Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“We’ve just got to work on closing out games, individually and collectively being able to finish games,” Farrakhan said.
Bennett said: “Hopefully we’ll keep building on the good things we’ve done, try to extend them and play good basketball longer.”