By Jeff White
ATLANTA — For the UVa men’s basketball team, practice Thursday began with rebounding drills at the Georgia State Sports Arena.
It was a little past noon. NC State and Boston College were still more than two hours from tipoff, which meant Virginia coach Tony Bennett had yet to learn the identity of his team’s quarterfinal opponent in the ACC tournament.
That was less than ideal, Bennett acknowledged later, but “it comes down to some constants we always talk about, regardless of who you’re playing, that’ll help you in postseason play, and they’re the things we’ve been emphasizing all year: blocking out, defensive rebounding, transition defense, taking care of the ball, running your offense to score. Just things that will have to be right whether a team’s going to play you in a zone, in a man, in a press.”
State and BC differ in how they play, especially on offense, but that’s “one thing I’ve always liked about our system defensively,” Bennett said. “Yeah, you want to know what the other team does, but we do things consistently — the way we play the ball screen, the way we play cut — so your rules are pretty much the same. I think that can help you.”
As expected, No. 5 seed NC State defeated No. 12 Boston College in their first-round game Thursday, winning 78-57 at Philips Arena, so perhaps it was no coincidence that Bennett stressed rebounding at the start of UVa’s final practice before the ACC tourney.
In their only regular-season meeting, the Cavaliers edged the Wolfpack 61-60, but they were fortunate to leave Raleigh with a victory. Playing less than 48 hours after beating Boston College in Charlottesville, UVa was outrebounded 42-25 at the RBC Center. The Pack turned 18 offensive rebounds into 17 second-chance points that night.
“They beat us up on the boards,” Virginia’s All-ACC forward, Mike Scott, said afterward.
The rematch between No. 4 seed UVa (22-8), which received a first-round bye, and No. 5 seed NC State (21-11) is scheduled to start around 2:15 p.m. Friday. The winner will advance to meet No. 1 seed North Carolina or No. 8 seed Maryland in the first semifinal Saturday afternoon.
As was the case in their final two regular-season games, the Wahoos will have only seven scholarship players for their ACC quarterfinal. Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon, the team’s sixth man for most of the season, had season-ending surgery on his left foot Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C.
In UVa’s win over NC State on Jan. 28, Brogdon scored 7 points in 28 minutes off the bench. That was Virginia’s third game without senior center Assane Sene, who hasn’t played since he fractured his right ankle Jan. 19 against Georgia Tech. (Because of a violation of team rules, Sene, who is still rehabbing his ankle, won’t play again this season.)
It was the Cavaliers’ ninth game without sophomore guard KT Harrell and redshirt freshman big man James Johnson, reserves who left the program in late December largely because they were unhappy about their playing time.
All of which made the regular season “more challenging,” Bennett noted Thursday. “So when the guys responded [with victories] and were close in a lot of games, that does make it gratifying.”
Joe Harris has played in all 30 games for Virginia, starting 29 of them, but this has been an extraordinarily eventful season for the 6-6 sophomore from Chelan, Wash. Flu-like symptoms nearly caused Harris to miss the Jan. 26 game against Boston College at John Paul Jones Arena, and about two weeks later he broke his non-shooting hand against UNC in Chapel Hill.
Harris, UVa’s second-leading scorer, has been playing since then with his left hand heavily wrapped. His production has dipped, but he continues to battle and doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice his body for the team. In a second-half collision March 1 with Florida State’s Bernard James, who stands 6-10 and weighs 240 pounds, Harris suffered a concussion at JPJ.
His latest setback forced Harris to miss two practices last week. He played in the regular-season finale against Maryland but, after his symptoms returned, had to sit out practice Tuesday. (He’s been cleared to play in the ACC tourney.)
“It’s definitely been a crazy year,” Harris said Wednesday night after UVa’s shootaround at Philips Arena. “I’ve never really had to worry about injuries or anything like that ever before, other than my freshman year of high school, when I broke my nose. But other than that, I never really missed practices or any games.
“It’s definitely been unusual, but it’s been fun. I wouldn’t want to change anything about it. We’ve had such a great year so far, and I personally love playing with these guys. It’s a really fun team to be around, and we have great chemistry, and we’ve formed great bonds throughout the season.”
Harris was part of the six-player recruiting class that enrolled at UVa in June 2010. One of its members, guard Billy Baron, transferred to Rhode Island during the 2010-11 season. Another, power forward Will Regan, transferred to Buffalo after the season.
More shocking was the timing — 11 games into a season in which UVa was 10-1 and nationally ranked — of Harrell’s and Johnson’s departures. Given the subsequent injuries to Sene and Brogdon, Harrell and Johnson undoubtedly would have seen their roles expand during the second half of this season.
Still, Harris said, “I feel that happening has brought us closer together. Obviously, KT and James were real close friends of mine, just because we came in together. And when they left, I felt like the team, we were a bit shell-shocked. But then that allowed us to get closer as a group with the guys that we have. And then with all the injuries that are happening now, too, it shows how much more we have to bond together, just because guys are kind of falling off one by one.”
Virginia’s starters consist of two fifth-year seniors (the 6-8 Scott and 6-1 shooting guard Sammy Zeglinski), a junior (5-11 point guard Jontel Evans), and two sophomores (Harris and 6-8 Akil Mitchell).
Bennett’s other healthy scholarship players are freshmen: 6-8 Darion Atkins and 6-6 Paul Jesperson, who came into the season planning to redshirt and didn’t make his college debut until Dec. 27, a few days after Harrell left the team.
“If you think about it, it’s crazy when you look back on the season,” Jesperson said, “starting off redshirting and now playing 18 to 20 minutes a game. But it’s an opportunity for myself, and I’m glad I’m in this situation. I’m very blessed to be here.”
Jesperson and Brogdon are roommates and close friends, and “I’m definitely down” about Brogdon’s injury, Jesperson said. “On the other hand, it’s an opportunity for me to step up and contribute to the team, so I’m excited for the opportunity.”
A year ago, in Greensboro, N.C., UVa was the first team eliminated from the ACC tournament. The eighth-seeded Cavaliers blew a 10-point lead in the final minute of regulation and then lost in overtime to No. 9 Miami.
That excruciating defeat ended Virginia’s second season under Bennett. A year later, UVa can advance to the ACC semifinals for the first time since 1995 with a win over NC State. Win or lose Friday, Virginia is likely to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.
No wonder this season has been so gratifying for UVa’s coaches and players.
“I feel like a lot of people might have ruled us out after some of the injuries that we’ve gotten,” Harris said. “When Assane goes down, when I broke my hand, when Malcolm goes out, people were kind of doubting the fact that you can play with seven scholarship players and be effective doing that, and with one of those scholarship guys maybe not 100 percent.
“But like I was saying about us growing closer together and being able to overcome a little bit of adversity, it makes it that much more enjoyable when we do win.”