By Jeff White
DURHAM, N.C. — The sounds of bouncing balls echoed inside Cameron Indoor Stadium. The stands were empty, the scoreboard and P.A. system turned off, as the UVa men’s basketball team practiced Wednesday night on Duke’s home court.
The scene will be different Thursday night. As it has been for the Blue Devils’ past 330 games there, Cameron will be sold out, and virtually all of the fans who pack the 9,314-seat gym will be hoping to see Mike Krzyzewski’s team win its 44th consecutive home game. Dick Vitale will be in the house, and Virginia’s coaches and players will have to work to make themselves heard over the din.
“It’s probably the best atmosphere in all of college basketball,” UVa assistant coach Jason Williford said this week.
That was also the case when Williford played forward for the Cavaliers in the ’90s. Back then, before the ACC expanded to the 12 schools, UVa visited Cameron every season, and Williford went 2-2 in the Blue Devils’ den.
His second year, Williford scored 13 points to help Virginia prevail 77-69 against a Duke team that included Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley.
Two years later, on Jan. 14, 1995, Williford’s contribution was more modest — 4 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists — but teammates Junior Burrough, Cory Alexander, Harold Deane Jr. and Curtis Staples supplied plenty of offense as UVa produced perhaps the greatest comeback in program history.
Virginia, which trailed 40-19 at halftime, rallied for a 91-88 double-overtime victory in Durham that day. Since then, however, the Wahoos have dropped 14 consecutive games at Cameron, a streak they’ll try to end Thursday night.
At 9 o’clock, 16th-ranked UVa (1-0, 14-1) meets No. 8 Duke (1-0, 13-2) in an ACC showdown that ESPN will carry nationally.
“We know it’s a big game on ESPN, with a lot of people watching,” Sammy Zeglinski said Wednesday night, “so we want to represent what Cavalier basketball is and show our principles to the world and let ’em know how we play defense and just give a great effort.”
Zeglinski, a 6-1 guard, is one of three seniors in Virginia’s starting lineup, along with center Assane Sene and power forward Mike Scott. To come away with a victory in his final appearance at Cameron “would be something to remember for the rest of my life, and we’re all excited for the opportunity that we have in front of us,” Zeglinski said.
“There’s no other place like this in the country, I don’t think, so when you get a chance to play down here, it’s always special. We’re all ready for the challenge.”
Junior point guard Jontel Evans agreed.
“No intimidation,” Evans said. “They put on their shorts just like us. I’m ready.”
In 2009-10, Tony Bennett’s first season as the Cavaliers’ coach, his team faced Duke twice, but neither game was in Durham. Bennett first experienced Cameron’s craziness last January. With 8:50 to play, the Blue Devils’ lead was only two, 54-52, but they pulled away for a 76-60 victory.
“Last year we had ’em on the ropes at Cameron until Nolan Smith started playing like an All-American,” Scott recalled Saturday night after UVa’s ACC opener, a 52-51 win over Miami at John Paul Jones Arena.
Smith is gone, but nobody should feel sorry for Krzyzewski, who has guided Duke to four NCAA titles during his Hall of Fame coaching career. Krzyzewski’s options include towering brothers Mason and Miles Plumlee, 6-11 forward Ryan Kelly and guards Austin Rivers, Andre Dawkins, Quinn Cook and Seth Curry.
“They have different weapons,” Bennett said Monday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference. “You try to key on one guy or take someone out, and they’ve got other guys who are certainly capable and will hurt you … They can get on the offensive glass, they can get it going in transition, those guys can shoot it from 3. They’re a complete offensive outfit.”
Most of Virginia’s offense has come from three players: Scott (16.5 ppg), sophomore swingman Joe Harris (12.3) and Zeglinski (9.9). Against Miami, however, the 6-8, 237-pound Scott (23 points) was the only Cavalier to score in double figures. If that’s the case again Thursday night, UVa’s 12-game winning streak almost certainly will end.
“You’re going to have to put some points on the board,” Bennett said. “But like we’ve always said, if you can be really good defensively, that can hold you in there if you’re either having an off game or the other team is so good defensively.”
That said, a visiting team needs more than rugged defense and solid offense to win at Cameron. “You have to be mentally tough,” Bennett said Wednesday night. “You have to have an aggressiveness and composure all in one, because they come at you, and they’re such an aggressive team themselves, the way they attack you, both offensively and defensively, that you’ve got to be assertive and aggressive back, with composure. Because things are gonna happen.
“A mistake will be made, they’ll make a huge play, the crowd will get wild. You have to have the ability to kind of make each possession a war and a battle of its own and not think too far ahead. No matter what happened the play before, you have to battle to win each possession on the defensive and offensive end. Cameron is a unique place in terms of its energy and, I guess, aura or mystique. But still, once the ball’s tipped, it’s about the game, it’s about blocking out, it’s about being sure with the ball and shooting good rhythm shots. That doesn’t change.”
Virginia’s starters — Zeglinski, Scott, Sene, Harris and Evans — have each played at Cameron at least once.
“We’ve gotta lean on that experience,” Bennett said. “Then the young guys hopefully will surprise us. But certainly the experience factor will be significant if we’re going to have a chance in this game.”
The first big man off the bench for UVa, 6-8 sophomore Akil Mitchell, played 22 minutes at Cameron last season. But three of Virginia’s nine scholarship players are freshmen — 6-5 guard Malcolm Brogdon, 6-8 forward Darion Atkins and 6-6 swingman Paul Jesperson.
“The returning guys all know what to expect,” Williford said, “but I’ve talked to some of the first-years. I talked to Malcolm and Darion in particular and just said, ‘You’ve got no clue what it’s like. Be ready. Duke plays at a different level in Cameron, and it’s going to be fun. But you have to be mentally into the game and prepared to do what we’re asking you to do.’ “
The Cavaliers rank second nationally in scoring defense (50.5 ppg), and they want no part of a shootout Thursday night.
“I don’t think man-for-man we can match up with a Carolina or a Duke or even some of the [other] teams in our league,” Bennett said, “so our strength has to be in how we play together. We have to do everything in our power to limit transition buckets” and make sure opponents have to face a set defense.
“And we have to be opportunistic,” Bennett said. “If there’s an opportunity for us and it’s a good shot, certainly you take it early. If not, then we just have to work to get the kind of shots we want. And there’s a battle for tempo, there’s no question. Some teams are comfortable playing at a certain pace, and some can play both paces. I think we understand who we are.”
Williford knows what it takes to win at Cameron, and he likes what he’s seen from UVa’s players as tipoff approaches.
“I think they’re ready,” he said. “I think this team’s veteran enough to be ready to go on the road and play anywhere, and I think they’re excited. There’s a few expectations this year, but I think we’re ready for those challenges.”
WELCOME ADDITION: The four players who signed letters of intent with UVa in November included Teven Jones, a 6-0 point guard from Kannapolis, N.C. Jones, who spent the fall semester as a postgraduate student at Fishburne Military Academy in Waynesboro, has been admitted to UVa early and will start classes there next week.
Jones will not be allowed to travel with the team or play this season. But he’ll be able to practice with the Cavaliers, who have been down to nine scholarship players since KT Harrell and James Johnson left school late last month, and train with strength-and-conditioning coach Mike Curtis.
In 2011-12, Jones will be eligible to compete as a redshirt freshman.
“It’s good for Teven to get him practicing with us and get him with Coach Curtis,” Bennett said Wednesday night, “and to get half a year under his belt, learning our system and going against [college] competition. It’s good for him academically, and it’s good for us, because our numbers are small in practice.”
After Harrell and Johnson departed, Fishburne coach Ed Huckaby contacted UVa’s staff. Huckaby wanted to know if the Cavaliers might be interested in adding Jones midyear.
“He said, ‘I got to thinking when I saw you guys have the transfers that if this would help you guys, and certainly it would help Teven, I’m willing to let him go for the betterment of you and him,’ ” Bennett recalled. “So I really appreciate that Coach Huck was willing to do that, and I think it’s good for both of us.”
The other recruits who signed in November — 6-11 Mike Tobey, 6-8 Evan Nolte and 6-6 Justin Anderson — will enroll at UVa in June.