By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Starting Sunday night at John Paul Jones Arena, UVa freshmen Evan Nolte, Mike Tobey, Justin Anderson, Taylor Barnette and Teven Jones enter a new phase of their college basketball careers. Let the ACC games begin.
“The intensity, the physicality, the speed, everything’s going to pick up,” Nolte said Saturday afternoon at JPJ. “There are no more easy games from here on out. We’re going to have to be focused all 40 minutes.”
Nolte does not, of course, speak from experience. Though he’s watched countless ACC games on TV, he’s never played in one. But his coaches and older teammates have done their best to prepare the newcomers for what lies ahead.
The freshmen “know that it’s a different level of play,” said junior swingman Joe Harris, Virginia’s leading scorer. “Getting into conference play, everything kind of turns up a little bit. It’s a lot more physical. Teams are tougher every night.”
Among ACC teams, perhaps only Duke is more formidable year in and year out than North Carolina, UVa’s opponent in the opener. The Cavaliers (10-3) host the Tar Heels (10-3) at 8 o’clock at JPJ. From one of the most talented teams in ACC history, UNC lost Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall to the NBA after last season, but the Wahoos remain wary.
“Everybody knows the success of their program and of Roy Williams,” Harris said. “Every year they always get the best players in the country, and so they’re always very talented. They play hard at both ends, and that’s what I would say makes it most challenging.”
With Zeller, Henson, Barnes and Marshall gone, it’s “a little bit different look this year than last year,” Harris said, “but it’s still Carolina, and they just seem to always rebuild, and they have plenty of star power behind the guys that start.”
Neither team has played since last weekend, when UVa whipped Wofford 74-39 in Charlottesville and Carolina collected a 79-73 win over UNLV, then ranked No. 17 in the USA Today coaches’ poll, in Chapel Hill.
“They’re young in some ways and they have had some stretches where they probably haven’t played as well as they wanted, like us,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said of the Heels. “But they really looked good against a very good UNLV team, without perhaps their best [player].”
Reggie Bullock, a 6-7 swingman who’s shooting 47.5 percent from 3-point range, missed the UNLV game with a concussion, but he’s expected to play Sunday night at JPJ. Bullock averages 13.1 points and 5.7 rebounds.
The `Hoos are likely to have senior point guard Jontel Evans available for the first time since Dec. 5, when he reinjured the foot on which he had surgery in early October. Evans made the ACC’s all-defensive team last season, and his presence should help Virginia slow the Tar Heels’ vaunted fast break.
“They definitely want to get out and go,” Bennett said. “Their system’s their system. They run the Carolina Break. They got some different pieces [from last season], like we do, but they’re very talented.”
The Cavaliers practiced Saturday for about an hour. Much of that time was spent on rebounding drills. The Heels are averaging 44.8 rebounds per game, to 38.5 for their opponents.
“It’s gonna be a war on the boards,” Bennett told his players. “Everybody’s gotta go get it. I want them to know that it’s going to be physical. Shot goes up, we’re gonna get it.”
UVa is plus-4.3 in rebounding average this season, thanks in large part to the efforts of 6-8 junior Akil Mitchell (9.2 boards per game). Neither the 6-8 Nolte (2.3 boards) nor the 6-11 Tobey (1.9) has yet to distinguish himself as a rebounder.
“That’s something we need to work on,” Nolte said. “We’re going to have to play well for us to win, especially on the rebounding side.”
The Cavaliers are averaging a modest 64.8 points, but their defense has been superb. As of Wednesday, UVa ranked second nationally in scoring defense (50.7 points per game), which makes Sunday night’s game a classic clash of styles. UNC leads the ACC in scoring (83.6 ppg). The Cavaliers cannot, associate head coach Ritchie McKay told the players Saturday, allow the Heels to get comfortable offensively.
“From the first play of the game they gotta know this is going to be a long 40 minutes,” McKay said.
The Heels score so much not only because they like to push the pace, but also because of their proficiency on the backboards. Among ACC teams, UNC is the leader in offensive rebounds (16.3 per game). Maryland (13.6) is a distant second.
“Coach Williams always has an excellent offensive-rebounding team,” McKay said,” because of three reasons: They recruit it, they emphasize it, and I think they run a system offensively that puts their players in good offensive-rebounding position. And it’s not just from their posts. They’ve got wings that are as athletic as Justin Anderson. And we’ve seen his athleticism a little bit.”
This is Bennett’s fourth season at UVa, and he’s 1-3 against the Heels as the Cavaliers’ coach. In 2011-12, Carolina pounded Virginia 70-52 in Chapel Hill — a game in which Harris broke his non-shooting hand — and then pulled out a 54-51 victory in Charlottesville.
UVa fans left JPJ that evening incensed about the officiating, especially a controversial call that sent All-ACC forward Mike Scott to the bench with his fourth foul early in the second half. Virginia’s players and coaches weren’t much happier.
“But I’m just itching to play them again,” Evans said. “They left a bad taste in my mouth last year.”
For the `Hoos, a bigger issue than the officiating in that game was their poor shooting. The Cavaliers clamped down on UNC, which shot only 33.3 percent from the floor, but failed to capitalize on their defensive prowess. They made only 21 of 60 shots from the floor (35 percent). From 3-point range, they were 6 for 23.
“In our three years here, when playing Carolina, because we send so many guys back [in transition defense], we’ve typically had a chance of staying in front of their incredibly fast tempo,” McKay said. “But on the other hand, obviously, you gotta make some shots.
“The challenge is, you can’t wait until the end of a possession to shoot a shot. You gotta stay aggressive, and Carolina’s an underrated defensive team. I think we gotta take advantage of opportunities that are afforded to us, when they’re afforded to us, regardless of the clock.”
John Paul Jones Arena opened for the 2006-07 season. Since then, the Cavaliers have beaten every one of their ACC counterparts at least once at JPJ, with one notable exception: North Carolina.
“I think we’re going to make history on Sunday,” Evans said, smiling. “That’s all I’m going to tell you.”
PRE-GAME ENTERTAINMENT — NFL fans, take note: The playoff game between the Redskins and the Seahawks, which starts at 4:30 p.m., will be shown on the `Hoo Vision video board at JPJ. The arena’s doors open at 6:30 p.m.