By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
OMAHA, Neb. — Two basketball teams passed without incident in one of the CenturyLink Center’s vast hallways Thursday afternoon, the Virginia Cavaliers heading out and the Florida Gators heading in.
They’ll cross paths again Friday, but the encounter doesn’t figure to be as amicable. At 2:10 p.m. Eastern, UVa (22-9), the No. 10 seed in the West Region, will play its first NCAA tournament game in five years, taking on No. 7 seed Florida (23-10) in what is officially a second-round game.
The winner will advance to face No. 2 seed Missouri or No. 15 seed Norfolk State on Sunday. If the Gators come close to or surpass their scoring average — 76.3 points — the Cavaliers are likely to see their third season under Tony Bennett end Friday. UVa has allowed an average of 53.7 points per game this season. The Cavaliers are averaging 63.1.
“Our two systems are going to clash,” All-ACC forward Mike Scott told reporters Thursday. “They like to get up and down the court, shoot quick off the shot clock. We like to slow it down, so we’re going to impose our game plan, and they’re going to do the same.”
The Wahoos held a 40-minute practice Thursday at the 17,301-seat CenturyLink Center, a session that was open to media members and the public. Immediately afterward, as Florida arrived for its open practice at the arena, the ‘Hoos headed to nearby Creighton University, where they fine-tuned their game plan in an otherwise empty gymnasium.
Injuries and attrition have left UVa with seven healthy scholarship players, and its two reserves are freshmen — Paul Jesperson and Darion Atkins. The Gators, who have won two NCAA titles under Billy Donovan, are taller, deeper and more athletic than UVa. Florida comes in as a clear favorite, but the ‘Hoos have proven to be extraordinarily resilient this season, and no one associated with the program is counting them out Friday.
“I think we understand how we have to play to be successful, and I think that’s a significant thing,” Bennett said Thursday at Creighton. “We’ve got to execute it, especially when you’re playing a team that’s trying to do something specific with the amount of 3s they take and how fast they play. So our ability to try to frustrate them with our system, and I guess their ability to try to frustrate us with their system, will be [decisive].”
The keys for his team, Bennett said, will be handling the Gators’ full-court pressure, slowing the Gators’ transition game and properly defending the Gators’ ball screens. The Cavaliers’ perimeter defense will be severely tested Friday. Florida has attempted a staggering 841 shots from 3-point range this season. (UVa, by contrast, has attempted 451 treys.)
“There’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment to their quickness, and their balance and scoring,” Bennett said, “but I think our guys have a clear picture of what needs to be done in order to be successful, and I think that’s important.”
Bennett said he’s told his players that “our system, our style of play, can be very effective in tournament play, and that’s what they need to understand. It’s the first [NCAA tourney] experience for all of them, so how they’ll adapt, how they’ll adjust, will be significant. But I think it’s just getting to your game as quickly as you can and playing it well.”
As a Wisconsin-Green Bay point guard whose coach was his father, Dick, Bennett played in the NCAA tournament. This is the younger Bennett’s third trip as a head coach. He went 3-2 in the NCAAs at Washington State, advancing to the round of 32 in 2007 and to the Sweet Sixteen a year later.
For much of the ’80s and ’90s, first under Terry Holland and then Jeff Jones, Virginia regularly played in the NCAA tourney. During the tenures of Pete Gillen and Dave Leitao, however, the ‘Hoos reached the NCAAs only twice, and Bennett was hired in the spring of 2009 to revive a program that once ranked among the ACC’s elite.
“There is great tradition and history at Virginia, there really is,” Bennett said, “but this is only the fourth appearance in the last 16 years for Virginia in the NCAA tournament, so this is a positive step.
“Then when you can get in here and play well, it’s another step, so, of course, the opportunity that presents itself is great for our program to play well and move on. That’s what we are trying to build. We made steady improvements from our first year to our second year, and now we are trying to move on.”
UVa’s roster includes three freshmen: Atkins, Jesperson and the injured Malcolm Brogdon.
“They’re so spoiled,” Scott said, smiling. “They get to the tournament their first year.”
For the other Cavaliers, especially fifth-year seniors Scott and Sammy Zeglinski, the invitation to the NCAA tournament was more difficult to earn.
Bennett has told his team that playing in the NCAAs is “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Zeglinski said Thursday. “For us, it is. We’ve been at the school for five years, and we have been waiting for this our whole career. Now that we’re here, I don’t think any of us are complacent. We want to take advantage of the opportunity given us.”
Florida is in the NCAAs for the 12th time in 14 seasons. Selection Sunday was a bigger deal for the Cavaliers. But Scott, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding, said the ‘Hoos aren’t satisfied with simply making the 68-team field.
“Celebrating is over,” he said. “It happened, names were called, and now it’s gone. Now we’re here to work and win games.”
Since Jan. 19, when 7-0 center Assane Sene went down with a broken ankle, Bennett has had no players taller than 6-8. Florida’s starters include 6-9 center Patric Young (10.3 ppg) and 6-10 forward Erik Murphy (10.7 ppg), a gifted 3-point shooter.
The Gators’ strength, though, is in the backcourt. Donovan starts three guards — 5-8 senior Erving Walker, 6-2 junior Kenny Boynton and 6-3 freshman Bradley Beal — and each averages at least 12.1 points.
“They’re very talented,” Zeglinski said. “I’m really excited about it. I think one of our strengths is perimeter defense. It should be a fun matchup. They’re really guard-oriented, they shoot a lot of 3s, and they have a lot of experience in the postseason.”
The 6-1 Zeglinski, at 8.7 points per game, is Virginia’s third-leading scorer. No. 2 is 6-6 sophomore Joe Harris (11.5 ppg), who has been playing with a broken left hand since Feb. 11. Virginia’s other starters are 5-11 junior Jontel Evans and 6-8 sophomore Akil Mitchell, who against NC State in the ACC tournament posted the first double-double of his college career.
On the bench are the 6-6 Jesperson and the 6-8 Atkins, who have combined for 2 points in Virginia’s past three games. Brogdon, UVa’s sixth man for the most of the season, had major foot surgery last week and won’t play again in 2011-12.
“Without him, we haven’t had much contributions from the bench, scoring-wise,” Bennett said Monday in Charlottesville. “Darion and Paul are going to be called upon. They’re going to get opportunities, and with the seven-man rotation, if it’s Paul sticking a jump shot or getting good looks, or Darion getting some finishes or making good defensive plays, that’s important.
“The thing is, I think for some of those young guys, we’ve got to convince them that they have to go out there and not be afraid to make a mistake. I think sometimes you go out there and [think], ‘I don’t want to screw up.’ That can sometimes be your mentality when you’re out there, and they have to go out there and play with a freedom of trying to help the team. Not doing anything crazy, but they’re going to be important, and we need everybody to [contribute] in this one.”
At the press conference Thursday, UVa’s player representatives were Zeglinski and Scott. During his college career, each suffered a season-ending injury for which he received another year of eligibility — Zeglinski in 2007-08, Scott in 2010-11.
“You know, Sammy is just like me,” Scott said. “We went through injuries, up and downs, coach changes, and just to see him persevere through the adversity is amazing.
“I’m sure he will say the same thing about me, hopefully … I cherish our moments together. But we’re not trying to let this end right now. We’re going to try to keep this thing going.”
The stage is set for them, Bennett told his players late in the regular season. That they have faced — and overcome — so much adversity in 2011-12 makes “this even more memorable,” Bennett said. “And that’s what I think they embraced and said, ‘We’re not going to give an inch, and we’ll go down swinging if we’re going down.’ ”
Zeglinski said: “We know it’s going to be a tough road, but I think if we prepare the right way, we have just as good a shot as anybody else. It’s March Madness, so anything can happen.”