By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In its third ACC game, the UVa men’s basketball team traveled to Clemson and lost 59-44 on Jan. 12 at Littlejohn Coliseum. About three weeks later, the Cavaliers crushed the Tigers 78-41 at John Paul Jones Arena.
Virginia has an opportunity this weekend to avenge another unsightly defeat. Three weeks ago in Atlanta, UVa led Georgia Tech by nine points with eight minutes remaining at McCamish Pavilion, yet managed to lose 66-60.
The rematch is Sunday at JPJ, where Virginia has won a school-record 14 straight games. The Wahoos (18-8, 8-5) host the Yellow Jackets (14-11, 4-9) at 2 p.m.
“I know that we’re all hungry to get back at Georgia Tech,” junior swingman Joe Harris said after practice Friday.
In Atlanta, the Jackets scored 18 of the final 21 points to stun the `Hoos, who entered with a four-game winning streak.
“We struggled down the stretch with some turnovers and some poor play,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said, “and that was obviously a tough loss for us, so hopefully we’ll show that we’ve improved, knowing that they’ve improved, too. They’ve played some teams close. We gotta be ready. It’s a home game, and we’re getting near the end, so you want to certainly be at your best.”
In 2011-12, their third season under Bennett, the Cavaliers advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. A strong finish would send the `Hoos to the NCAAs again this year, though that’s not a topic Bennett has addressed with his players.
He doesn’t have to.
“It’s obvious,” Bennett said. “To earn a spot, we’re going to have to play well and win some games to be considered, but there’s so much movement left that it’s almost silly to be too consumed now with where you stand [in ESPN analyst] Joe Lunardi’s bracketology, because that’s so fluid.
“You’ve got to play good basketball, and I think we’ve gotten to this point by focusing on the quality side of things and knowing that here we are, and if it goes well we’ll be considered, and if it doesn’t, we won’t. It’s pretty much black and white. But I don’t think you obsess about it or get consumed with it as far as, `Let’s see, we gotta get X amount of games and we gotta start pulling for this team to win or this team to lose.’ I think we’re just aware of it, and we’ll probably look at it when there’s a game or two left and say, `OK, where are we at?’ We just know we’re going to have to play well.”
Harris said: “We all watch SportsCenter, and we see when they talk about who’s in and who’s out. It seems like every day they’re putting teams on the bubble, and we see our team [listed] every now and then. But I think our coaches do a good job of making us focus on one practice at a time, one game at a time. We understand what we need to do in order to get to the tournament, but obviously our approach is one day at a time.”
Georgia Tech is tied with Boston College for 10th in the ACC, ahead of only Virginia Tech in the standings. Since knocking off the `Hoos, the Jackets have gone 2-3, and they’re coming off a 70-58 loss to North Carolina in Atlanta.
Virginia, the ACC’s fourth-place team, is trying to avoid its first three-game skid of the season. After pounding Virginia Tech 73-55 at JPJ on Feb. 12, UVa lost 93-81 at North Carolina four days later, then fell 54-50 to second-ranked Miami on Tuesday night.
A defensive breakdown in the final seconds doomed the Cavaliers against the Hurricanes, then unbeaten in ACC play. Still, the `Hoos felt better about their performance in Coral Gables than they had about their effort in Chapel Hill.
“I thought we did a really good job defensively for the majority of the game,” Harris said. “It was just one miscue at the end of the game. Obviously there are miscues at the beginning of the game, too. You can’t just blame it on one play. But for the most part I thought we did a good job defensively, especially coming off a game where we gave up 93 to Carolina.”
In a poll taken among ACC head coaches before the season, UVa was picked to finish seventh in the league. That was before Virginia announced 6-5 guard Malcolm Brogdon, the team’s sixth man for most of 2011-12, would redshirt this season to have more time to recover from a foot injury.
Bennett’s counterparts also didn’t know when they voted that point guard Jontel Evans, the only UVa senior on scholarship when the season began, would take longer than expected to round into form after returning from foot surgery. Or that sophomore big man Darion Atkins would develop a stress reaction in his right leg, an injury that kept him out of five ACC games and has limited his impact in six other conference tests. Or that freshman center Mike Tobey would be sidelined with mononucleosis after the Feb. 3 game at Georgia Tech.
Along the way, the Cavaliers have dropped several games they probably should have won — they’re 0-3 against Colonial Athletic Association teams — but this group has produced many more highs than lows. Bennett said he’s enjoyed seeing “some of these guys mature, and up to this point at times they’ve been pleasantly surprising in terms of their ability to hang in there and battle.
“Just because they’ve done that, that doesn’t guarantee anything, because it gets harder, I think, as we go, with the games left. But they’ve been enjoyable to work with, because they’re enthusiastic, they’re eager to do well, and they’re the right kind of young men, character-wise. You can’t help but like them and pull for them. There’s not a lot of ego on this team. They just really enjoy playing and really want to take this thing as far as they can and keep getting better.”
After the Miami game, Evans shook his head when asked if the pressure of trying to make the NCAAs was affecting the Cavaliers.
“There’s no heat,” Evans said. “We’re just going to stay together and try to finish this season out strong. We’re right there.”