By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MIAMI — Darion Atkins made the trip to sunny South Florida, and the 6-8 sophomore’s injured right leg is feeling a little better every day. But 6-11 freshman Mike Tobey, who’s recovering from mononucleosis, stayed back in Charlottesville, as did another talented big man, 6-8 sophomore Anthony Gill, who’s sitting out this season after transferring to UVa from South Carolina.
Two of Tobey’s classmates — 6-8 Evan Nolte and 6-7 Justin Anderson — can play power forward, but each is more comfortable on the perimeter than in the paint. Which means the Cavaliers have exactly one true post player who’s healthy, 6-8, 234-pound junior Akil Mitchell, as they prepare to take on the ACC’s biggest and best team Tuesday night in Coral Gables, Fla.
Virginia (18-7, 8-4) meets second-ranked Miami (21-3, 12-0) at 9 o’clock in the BankUnited Center. Already this season, the Hurricanes have thrashed Duke by 27 points and North Carolina by 26 at their 7,200-seat arena.
“This will be the most talented and biggest team we’ve played to this point,” UVa head coach Tony Bennett said.
Indeed, with frontcourt players such as 6-11, 242-pound Kenny Kadji, 6-10, 292-pound Reggie Johnson and 6-10, 250-pound Julian Gamble, the ‘Canes, as Atkins put it, are “humongous.”
The Wahoos are not, and they can do nothing about that right now, as associate head coach Ritchie McKay noted when broke out his best Rick Pitino impersonation Monday.
“Ralph Sampson isn’t walking through that door,” McKay said, smiling. “Olden Polynice isn’t walking that door. Junior Burrough isn’t walking through that door. But we like our group, and hopefully D.A. can give us some minutes that would maybe take a little bit of pressure off Akil. Because he’s expending so much energy on both ends. You gotta give him a rest at some point.”
Mitchell (12.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg) is coming off a game — a 93-81 loss to North Carolina in Chapel Hill — in which foul trouble limited his effectiveness. When Mitchell went to the bench with his second personal, with less than six minutes to play in the first half, UVa led by six. The Cavaliers needed a desperation 3-pointer by senior point guard Jontel Evans to enter the break tied with the Tar Heels.
With Mitchell on the bench, the `Hoos went into “hold-onto-the-lead mode, instead of trying to pull away a little bit, create some separation,” McKay said. “And needless to say, most teams have game-planned to throw it inside [to try to draw fouls on Mitchell], and Miami will be no different.”
The `Canes, who are in their second season under former UVa assistant coach Jim Larranaga, are the first team to start 12-0 in ACC play since Duke (16-0) in 1998-99. Miami has won 13 straight games since a Christmas Day loss to Indiana State at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.
That winning streak nearly ended at 12. The `Canes needed a late rally to edge Clemson 45-43 at Littlejohn Coliseum on Sunday night.
“What happened is, they missed some shots,” McKay said, “and in the BankUnited Center, they’re probably not going to miss as many open looks. But give Clemson credit. They did a good job defending them, and that’s what we hang our hat on, so we’ll be anxious to see how we respond to giving up 93 points in Chapel Hill.”
Until Saturday, Virginia had not allowed more than 69 points in a game all season. For a team that prides itself on its stout man-to-man defense, the Carolina game was troubling.
“Once they got rolling, we couldn’t stop `em,” Bennett said Monday morning on the weekly ACC coaches’ teleconference.
“It’s a battle every time you’re out there to be in position to make guys earn shots, and we were just a little slow with our reflexes and our reactions. We were there, but we weren’t necessarily bothering some of those shots [P.J.] Hairston hit, or some of the other guys.”
During practice that afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena, Bennett repeatedly challenged his players to return to form on defense.
“We just had 93 points hung on us, so you gotta have some pride and say, `No way,’ ” Bennett yelled at one point.
Led by junior swingman Joe Harris, the Cavaliers have scored at least 73 points in each of their past four games. That offensive productivity is one reason “why we’ve played some good basketball,” said Bennett, whose team has won seven of its past nine games.
In Chapel Hill, UNC succeeded in getting the `Hoos to play at a faster pace than they wanted to, but “that’s a fine line,” Bennett said. “It’s a hard one as a coach. You ask any coach [about striking a] balance between not slowing it down too much, where guys are restricted or feel hesitant, but having some patience and poise, and still having some assertiveness.”
Virginia will start one senior, Evans, at the BankUnited Center. Miami, by contrast, is the ACC’s — and maybe Division I’s — most experienced team. The `Canes start four seniors (Gamble, Kadji and 6-5 guards Durand Scott and Trey McKinney Jones) alongside sophomore point guard Shane Larkin. Moreover, Miami’s top frontcourt reserve, Johnson (9.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg), also is a senior.
“They’re the oldest non-BYU team that I’ve ever coached against or seen,” McKay said. “But what makes them good is they’ve got guys that are very bought into Coach Larranaga’s system. They’ve done a terrific job of creating balance and efficiency. If you take away their interior game, they’ve got guys on the perimeter that can beat you. And if you try and shut down their guards, they’ll throw it down low and beat you up. So they’re a very difficult matchup for anybody, and that’s why they’re second in the country.”
Miami has three of the ACC’s top 17 scorers: No. 14 Scott (13.4 ppg), No. 16 Larkin (13.2) and No. 17 Kadji (13), an accomplished 3-point shooter.
“I think our team defense has to be at its best,” Bennett said. “If it’s not, it’ll be very difficult for us, because of their size, their ability. Obviously it always starts with trying to do a good job at the point of attack, with Larkin, and my hope is Jontel will really be ready, but it’s not any one guy versus their guy. It’s gotta be our team defense, and that will be our chance.”
Atkins, who leads the Cavaliers in blocked shots, could provide a boost at the defensive end. He started 12 of Virginia’s first 16 games this season before being sidelined by a stress reaction in his lower right leg.
The injury caused him to miss five games and play sparingly in three others. Against UNC, however, Atkins scored four points and grabbed three rebounds in eight minutes, his longest appearance since Jan. 12.
“I feel like every day it’s getting better, especially when I’m not working out and stuff and I’m just walking around without my shoes on,” Atkins said Monday. “It’s starting to hurt less and less.”
A X-ray taken last week, Atkins said, revealed that “new bone had grown over the weak spot, and [doctors] said from that point on it would only get better. It’s going to keep progressing whether I play on it or not. There’s always going to be a little of discomfort until it fully heals, but it’s not going to move back. It’s only going to move forward.”
And that’s encouraging news for the ‘Hoos, who desperately need frontcourt depth for the homestretch, starting Tuesday night against Miami’s imposing cast of big men.
“It’s gonna be a slugfest,” Atkins said. “We’re gonna have to bang with them.”