By Jeff White
EUGENE, Ore. — St. Thomas often can seem a world away from Charlottesville. Still, in its three games at the Paradise Jam tournament last month, the UVa men’s basketball team had as many fans as its opponents did at the University of the Virgin Islands’ Sports and Fitness Center.
“That was nothing like being on the road, going into somebody else’s gym,” Virginia forward Mike Scott said.
That experience awaits the Cavaliers on Sunday. Tony Bennett’s team has played six games at John Paul Jones Arena and three in St. Thomas this season. At 5:30 p.m. Eastern, Virginia (8-1) meets Oregon (6-2) at the Ducks’ dazzling Matthew Knight Arena, which opened early this year.
“The court’s nice. The arena’s nice,” Scott said after practice Saturday night. “They say the arena cost more than JPJ. Should be a nice place to play.”
With an official capacity of 12,541, Matthew Knight Arena is smaller than JPJ (14,593), but the building cost $227 million to build, about $100 million more than the Cavaliers’ arena. The most distinctive feature fans watching on TV will notice Sunday is the court, on which are depicted a forest of brown and orange fir trees.
“I’ll take JPJ any time,” UVa assistant coach Jason Williford said at practice Saturday.
The ‘Hoos are coming off final exams and haven’t played since Dec. 6, when they thumped George Mason 68-48 at JPJ. The long layoff probably concerns Bennett more than the prospect of playing on the road.
“I hope we don’t take a step back,” Bennett said. “We’ve worked hard to get ourselves established.”
In its first five home games this season, Oregon has averaged 6,266 fans, and final exams ended more than a week ago at this Pac-12 school, so a capacity crowd is not expected Sunday. Even so, the Wahoos aren’t likely to hear many cheers, and the environment — and the opponent — will challenge his players, Bennett said.
“Certainly the competition will improve, on the road in this setting,” said Bennett, who’s in his third year at UVa, “and there’s not as big of a margin for error. You don’t have the comfort of home to help you get going if you need it. You gotta be ready.”
Among them, Virginia’s three seniors — Scott, center Assane Sene and guard Sammy Zeglinski — have 201 career starts. For the ‘Hoos to stretch their winning streak to seven games, Bennett believes, those seniors must contribute more than points and rebounds and good defense against the Ducks. They need to lead — and to be loud doing so.
“On the road, I want them to just keep leading in all ways, but it’s important to talk and communicate and not be real quiet,” Bennett said. “It’s gotta be more than just patting each other on the shoulders. They gotta talk. They gotta be vocal. They gotta have that kind of communication.”
The Cavaliers’ roster includes three freshmen: guard Malcolm Brogdon, small forward Paul Jesperson and power forward Darion Atkins. Jesperson is redshirting, but Brogdon is averaging 21.7 minutes per game, and Atkins has been the second big man (behind sophomore Akil Mitchell) off the bench for Virginia.
“They’ve never been on the road,” Scott said, “and me, Sammy and Assane, we’ve got to be able to lead our young guys.”
Visitors at practice Saturday night included Daven Harmeling, who played for Bennett at Washington State. Also in the arena were Joe Harris’ parents and two of the UVa sophomore’s three sisters.
Like Bennett, who spent six seasons at Washington State, Harris has ties to the Pacific Northwest. The 6-6 swingman is from Chelan, Wash., where the weather, Harris was quick to point out, is not as gray as what the Cavaliers have encountered in Eugene.
“This is nothing like Chelan,” Harris said with a smile.
Virginia plays Wednesday night at Seattle University, and some 200 friends and family members are expected to show up to cheer for Harris at KeyArena. Bennett agreed to the series with Oregon and Seattle in part to let Harris to play close to home.
A season ago, both of those teams visited JPJ. Without Scott, who missed the game with an ankle injury, the Cavaliers whipped the Ducks 63-48 on Dec. 17, 2010.
Five nights later, Scott returned for what would be his final appearance of 2010-11 and contributed 12 points and 8 rebounds. That wasn’t enough to prevent a stunning loss to Seattle, which won 59-53 at JPJ.
This season, the 6-8, 237-pound Scott leads the ‘Hoos in scoring (15.3 ppg) and rebounding (9.1). He’s about to face an Oregon team that bears little resemblance to the one he saw in Charlottesville last season.
E.J. Singler (13 ppg), younger brother of former Duke star Kyle Singler, is back, but Joevan Catron, who led the Ducks with 16 points and 7 rebounds at JPJ, is gone, and Tyrone Nared is sidelined with a knee injury. Coach Dana Altman’s newcomers include two players with whom UVa is familiar: 6-4 guard Devoe Joseph and 6-11, 250-pound center Tony Woods.
Joseph, a senior, is a transfer from Minnesota. He came off the bench to score 16 points early last season in the Golden Gophers’ 87-79 loss to the Cavaliers in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game in Minneapolis.
Woods, a junior, left Wake Forest in October 2010. He’s averaging 7.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in his first season at Oregon. Joseph (15.5 ppg) leads the Ducks in scoring.