By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In a soundbite that Jim Rome loved to replay on his radio show, ad nauseam, former UVa basketball coach Pete Gillen once offered this observation about the Duke Blue Devils: “They’re on TV more than Leave It to Beaver reruns.”
Nothing has changed. Duke remains a fixture on ESPN and its sister networks. Appearances on national television are not as common for the Cavaliers, but they’ll play on the big stage Wednesday night, against — who else? — the fifth-ranked Blue Devils.
At 7 o’clock, UVa (3-7, 12-12) hosts ACC rival Duke (10-1, 23-2) at sold-out John Paul Jones Arena. ESPN2 is broadcasting the game.
Back in Virginia freshman Joe Harris’ hometown of Chelan, Wash., his grandparents subscribe to the ACC package on DIRECTV, so his family gets to see many of his games. But games such as Wednesday night’s are different.
“It’s obviously pretty cool playing on national television, on ESPN,” Harris said. “It just gives a chance for everybody back home that doesn’t get to see a lot of my games to be able to watch this one.
“I guess you’d say it’s kind of a big deal. In town, whenever we have a game on ESPN, I know a lot of people will be watching.”
These appearances are important for UVa, too, as second-year coach Tony Bennett works to rebuild a program that under two of his predecessors, Terry Holland and Jeff Jones, regularly participated in the NCAA tournament. High school players around the country can tune into these broadcasts. Perform well in prime time, and people notice.
“You just want to play good basketball and keep gaining on what we’re trying to build,” Bennett said after practice Tuesday at JPJ. “When you play a team the caliber of Duke, they’re always going to draw a national television audience.
“The first time we played them, it was regular ESPN. Some people who watched that called and said, ‘Hey, we’re seeing some good things.’ You just want to put your best foot forward and not get too focused on whether it’s 2 or U or regular ESPN. Just play well. But hopefully you can establish some good things, and people can see it and say it’s going in the right direction.”
This will be the Wahoos’ fourth appearance on ESPN2 this season. That network carried two of their games at the Maui Invitational, as well as their Nov. 29 upset of then-No. 15 Minnesota. ESPNU has broadcast two Virginia games — the Nov. 24 loss to Wichita State in Maui and Feb. 2 win over Clemson at JPJ — and will also carry the Cavaliers’ game at Georgia Tech next week.
ESPN televised UVa’s visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 15. The defending NCAA champion Blue Devils were then ranked No. 1 nationally, but Virginia didn’t back down.
The ‘Hoos took the lead at Cameron with 10:31 left in the first half, on a free throw by junior guard Sammy Zeglinski. Duke didn’t regain the lead until the 12:15 mark of the second half. The Cavaliers led by nine early in the second half.
Harris and senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan scored 15 points apiece for Virginia in its 76-60 loss.
“We competed, and we played a pretty solid game for 30 minutes, 35 minutes. We just couldn’t really finish at the end,” Harris said. “That’s what we’re hoping for this game. Obviously there’s a lot of excitement, with the fans and everyone, and we’re excited to play and kind of redeem ourselves for the game we had down there.”
When the Blue Devils played at JPJ last season, they romped 67-49. “They knocked us out right away,” Bennett said.
“That happened more than a few times last year,” Bennett added. It can’t happen Wednesday night if UVa hopes to end a six-game losing streak in this series.
“When you play a team with the ability to go on a run or a spurt like Duke, you’ve got to try to either get off to a good start yourself or stay attached,” Bennett said. “You can’t let them separate too much. It’s hard to reel in teams of that firepower.”
Virginia, which since Dec. 22 has been without its best player, 6-8 Mike Scott (ankle injury), has dropped seven of its past nine games. In many of those losses — most notably the North Carolina, Boston College, Wake Forest and Miami games — Bennett’s team was in position to win, but broke down late.
What stands out to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski about the Cavaliers is “the fact that they play hard all the time,” he said on the ACC coaches’ teleconference Monday. “They’ve done a good job with their team. They’ve been in every ball game and had chances, obviously, to win a few more.
“They just play hard, smart, and they play together. And they use their resources collectively very well. It’s not one person you’re defending. You’re defending them. It’s not one person you’re trying to score against. You’re trying to score against them … We have a lot of respect for what they’re building there, and the kids they have in their program. They have good young players, and they play hard.”
Bennett’s young players include sophomore point guard Jontel Evans and freshmen Harris, KT Harrell and Akil Mitchell. Virginia came into the season with three seniors — Scott, Farrakhan and 6-9 forward Will Sherrill. Between them, though, Scott and Sherrill (leg injury) have missed 20 games.
Sherrill didn’t play last weekend against Florida State, and he’s questionable for the Duke game. Which means Bennett will probably rely Wednesday night, as he did in Tallahassee, on a seven-man rotation: Farrakhan, Harris, Harrell, Zeglinski, Evans, Mitchell and 7-0 junior Assane Sene.
“Just continuing to try to improve,” Bennett said Monday. “I feel like Groundhog Day a little bit where we’re getting close in some stretches. We made a nice comeback against Florida State but didn’t have enough. Still finding ways to maximize this team, keep our guys hungry and upbeat, but being realistic and looking at the areas to keep developing.”
Sherrill’s injury problems have meant a larger role for the 6-8, 225-pound Mitchell, a graduate of Charlotte Christian School. Mitchell has averaged 16.7 minutes in Virginia’s past three games.
His statistics are modest — Mitchell averages 2.4 points and 2.8 rebounds — but his promise is immense.
“I think he’s getting the experience that’s going to be valuable for him for his future,” Bennett said. “The minutes he’s getting thrown into are very important for him and for us, and he does bring a degree of athleticism. I think he’s becoming a smarter player, too, just with some know-how defensively and understanding areas in the game where he can make an impact.
“I think he’s making the most of his time and knows that he’s got some improvement in front of him, and he certainly works very hard. He’s one of those guys that works real hard before and after practice.”
On Wednesday night, viewers across the country will have an opportunity to assess the progress made by Mitchell and his teammates. But the Cavaliers will be focused on Duke, Harris said, not on the cameras.
“You kind of just forget about it,” Harris said. “Once you get on the court, it’s kind of the same as every other game. You don’t think about the fact that you’re playing on ESPN.”