By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — UVa meets Florida State in men’s basketball Saturday afternoon at the Donald L. Tucker Center, and Mustapha Farrakhan wants to get fouled. The senior guard wants to go to the line, wants to show that what happened a week ago on the other side of this state was an aberration.
“I know that I can make free throws,” Farrakhan said after practice Friday afternoon in Charlottesville. “Some days are just like that.”
In a game that the Cavaliers could have — should have — won, they squandered a seven-point lead late in the second half and fell 70-68 at Miami in overtime last Saturday in Coral Gables. Each team shot 22 free throws. The Hurricanes hit 17; the Cavaliers, nine.
Among ACC teams, UVa ranks second in 3-point field-goal percentage (38.8) but only ninth in free-throw percentage (68.1).
Junior center Assane Sene was 0 for 3 against the ‘Canes, but he’s never been a great free-throw shooter. Farrakhan and freshman Joe Harris came in shooting 80 and 77 percent from the line for the season, respectively. Against Miami, though, Farrakhan was 4 for 9 and Harris 2 for 6.
Farrahkan, like his teammates, shot hundreds of free throws in practice this week. He also watched videotape of his misses against Miami.
“I just think I’ve got to bring my elbow in a little more,” Farrakhan said Friday. “I think I was just getting a little too casual with it.”
Florida State (7-3, 17-7) leads the ACC in field-goal percentage defense and ranks third in scoring defense. So when the Wahoos (3-6, 12-11) get to the line Saturday, they’ll need to capitalize on those opportunities if they hope to end an embarrassingly long losing streak in the Sunshine State.
The ‘Hoos have dropped 13 straight games in Florida since winning at FSU on Feb. 17, 2001.
UVa’s margin for error may be even smaller than usual Saturday (3 p.m. tipoff). Senior forward Will Sherrill re-injured his right leg in the second half at Miami and didn’t practice this week.
Whether Sherrill, a team captain, can play at FSU will be “a game-time decision,” second-year coach Tony Bennett said Thursday night. “Not super hopeful, but we’ll see.”
Sherrill fractured his right fibula Nov. 29 at Minnesota. He returned Dec. 30 against Iowa State. Last week, he had finally started to move well on the court again, and “he was really helping us defensively, just plugging the gaps,” Bennett said, and providing “the experience, the smarts.”
The ‘Hoos, of course, are already without their best big man, 6-8 Mike Scott, who’s out with a season-ending ankle injury. If Sherrill isn’t available Saturday, some of his minutes could go to 6-8 freshman Will Regan, who has played in only one of UVa’s past six games.
“That’s why I always tell our guys: Be ready. You don’t know,” Bennett said. “So if Sherrill can’t go, certainly Will Regan will have to be a consideration. We’ll have to continue to look at things.”
Who knows? Bennett said with a smile. “We might play five guards.”
He’s already playing four together for long stretches. At 6-6 and barely 200 pounds, Harris is a power forward in name only, but that’s where he’s been starting.
At his high school in rural Washington state, Harris often brought the ball up for the Chelan Goats.
At Virginia, he quickly earned a starting on the wing in what was essentially a three-guard lineup. But the injuries to Scott and Sherrill forced Bennett to get creative with his lineup, and so Harris moved to power forward.
He leads the team with 45 treys, and he’s averaging 10.3 points and 3.5 rebounds.
“It causes mismatches on the offensive end, and if you can hold your own defensively with our system [it can work],” Bennett said.
“You just have to make the most of it. There’s have been times where we have gotten hurt [by opposing power forwards], but times that we haven’t gotten hurt, and it’s been effective for us, and we’ve been in games and had chances, I think, because we’ve had the floor spread.
“You gotta put your [best players on the court]. We don’t have a lot of options. You gotta figure out ways to keep people off the glass and defensively keep it out of their hands or have an attack. But it’s always, every game it’s like, ‘Let’s see, can we exploit a mismatch? Are we getting hurt? Do we have to make an adjustment?’ ”
Harris says his new position has been a challenge, but not an impossible one.
“At times it might be tough to defend a bigger guy, with the physicality down low,” Harris said Thursday, “but at the offensive end, like Coach was saying, there’s often a lot of mismatches, with slower, bigger guys on me.”
On defense, Harris has to concentrate more on blocking out and going to the glass. He’s often playing alongside the 6-4 Farrakhan, 6-4 KT Harrell, 5-11 Jontel Evans and the 7-0 Sene.
“Obviously when I know I’m playing the 4, I’m going to be the second-biggest guy out there — for us, anyway — and it might be crazy sometimes,” Harris said. “But you gotta rebound, because Assane’s not going to be able to get every rebound.
“We talk collectively about the guards coming back to rebound, all five guys going to the glass at the defensive end.”
In 2009-10, the Cavaliers closed the regular season with nine consecutive defeats. Six of those losses were by 12 points or more. Bennett’s second team as UVa has been more competitive, even short-handed. The ‘Hoos led in the second halves of their losses to North Carolina, Duke, Boston College, Wake Forest and Miami.
“But in the end it’s about winning and losing,” Bennett said. “That’s why I keep challenging our guys to keep trying to put a complete game together, focusing on, as we say, the process and the quality.”
UVa hasn’t played since last weekend. FSU won Thursday night at Georgia Tech. The Seminoles may deal with some fatigue Saturday, but they’re taller and more athletic than Virginia, and “they’re a team that plays well at home, is fierce on the glass and is, when they’re locked in, one of the better defensive teams that you’ll see,” Bennett said.
That starts with forward Chris Singleton. A 6-9, 227-pound junior from Canton, Ga., Singleton was the ACC defensive player of the year in 2009-10. This season he’s averaging 14 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.6 blocked shots.
“He can take you inside, outside, and he can change the game on the defensive end of the floor,” Bennett said. “Again, I remember last year when we played against him how imposing he was … So he’s a guy that you have to be aware of. But they have some other guys — again, with that length and athleticism — that make it hard to get good looks.”
To win Saturday, the Cavaliers will have to make shots from the floor, which they did at Miami, and from the line, which they didn’t at Miami. But a solid offense won’t be enough against the ‘Noles.
“On our end of the floor defensively, we’ve got to really challenge them and make it real tough for them,” Bennett said, “which has been a strength of ours the last few games, making people earn against us, similar to what they try to do. It’s kind of a battle of wills.”