By Jeff White
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The chartered bus carrying the UVa men’s basketball team pulled into town around 7 o’clock on Friday night. The Cavaliers are scheduled to leave for Charlottesville around the same time Saturday night.
Will they be in high spirits when they board the bus? That depends on what happens Saturday at Lawrence Joel Coliseum, where the ACC’s last-place team, Wake Forest (0-5, 7-13), hosts Virginia (2-4, 11-9) at 4 p.m.
The Wahoos are in their second season under Tony Bennett. The Demon Deacons are in their first year under Jeff Bzdelik, and to say they’re struggling would be an understatement. The Deacons haven’t won since beating High Point on Jan. 5, and they’re the only ACC team without a conference win.
Yet UVa is wary of Wake, and understandably so. The Deacons, unlike the Wahoos, are well-rested. Wake hasn’t played since last Saturday.
Moreover, the ‘Hoos have dropped eight in a row at Joel Coliseum and five straight to the Deacons overall.
“It’s a challenge,” UVa forward Will Sherrill said Thursday night at John Paul Jones Arena. “Wake Forest is a team that’s really hungry for a win. They’re kind of playing with nothing to lose. It’s a dangerous game for us. We have to come out with a killer mindset, unlike what we did tonight.”
Virginia turned in one of its weakest efforts of the season Thursday, losing 66-42 to visiting Maryland. The Terrapins had not won in Charlottesville by a double-digit margin since 1975.
“We got away from the things Coach preaches to us constantly,” freshman swingman Joe Harris said afterward.
The Cavaliers were sloppy with the ball, defended poorly and shot abysmally from both the floor and the free-throw line. And yet with 18 minutes to play, UVa’s deficit was only two points.
“I think Coach said it in the locker room: We kind of let our offense affect our defense and the way we played,” Sherrill said. “I think just coming out in the second half it was hard to pinpoint an exact play or an exact moment where they kind of got momentum on us, but I think we just kind of lost our focus and fractured a little bit offensively and defensively.”
Harris and guards KT Harrell and Mustapha Farrakhan have proven to be capable shooters and scorers this season. If more than one of them is off in the same game, though, the ‘Hoos generally are in trouble. Those three were a combined 8 for 29 from the floor against Maryland.
“I just wish it wouldn’t seem like it would be contagious,” Bennett said. “A number of our guys were certainly cold, and that’s where I wish one guy could really step up and get us going.”
Wake has allowed 76.1 points per game, by the far the most of any ACC team. The Deacs rank near the bottom of the leaging in scoring offense, too, but they have five players averaging more than 10 points a game: guards J.T. Terrell (12.3), Gary Clark (11.4) and C.J. Harris (10.6) and forwards Travis McKie (13.0) and Ari Stewart (10.4).
“They can all score, and they’re hungry,” assistant coach Jason Williford reminded UVa players during practice Friday afternoon at JPJ.
Like Williford, the 6-7, 205-pound McKie starred at John Marshall High School in Richmond. McKie, who was a UVa recruiting target, leads ACC freshmen in scoring and rebounding (7.5 per game).
McKie’s contributions notwithstanding, Wake has lost to such teams as Stetson, Winthrop, UNC Wilmington and Presbyterian this season. But the Deacons undoubtedly feel better about their chances Saturday after watching UVa fall apart against Maryland.
“We’re definitely not going to underestimate Wake, no matter what their record is,” Harris said. “We’re know they’re going to be hungry.”
Sophomore point guard Jontel Evans agreed.
“That’s a big challenge,” Evans said. “I know Wake Forest is very hungry to get a win. That’s a dangerous team right there. They’re very hungry to get a win, so we just gotta come out focused and do the things we’re capable of doing, and hopefully we’ll come out with a victory.”
Starting at Wake, UVa will play three of its next four games on the road. The ‘Hoos are home Wednesday night against Clemson, then play twice in the Sunshine State: Feb. 5 at Miami and Feb. 12 at Florida State.