By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The UVa men’s basketball team’s first attempt this season to book a trip to New York City failed. Four months later, the Cavaliers are ready to begin that process again.
Of the 16 teams that played in the NIT Season Tip-Off, two are back in the full-fledged National Invitation Tournament: Robert Morris and Virginia.
The final two rounds of each event are played at Madison Square Garden. In November, after beating Fairfield, UVa needed only to defeat Delaware at John Paul Jones Arena to clinch a spot in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals in New York. The Wahoos lost, however, and had to settle for consolation-bracket games against Lamar and North Texas at JPJ.
The 32-team NIT begins Tuesday night, and UVa (21-11), one of the tournament’s four No. 1 seeds, faces Norfolk State (21-11), a No. 8 seed, at 9 o’clock at JPJ. ESPNU is carrying the game.
“We had two very good practices leading up to it,” Virginia’s associate head coach, Ritchie McKay, said Monday evening. “The one Sunday was great and today’s was good as well. That excites me. You and I both know the last time we were in the NIT was the last time we lost a game in John Paul Jones Arena. So I think maybe a second opportunity to go back to New York is something that should highly motivate our group.”
Head coach Tony Bennett’s team has won a school-record 17 consecutive games at JPJ since losing there to Delaware on Nov. 13.
“We’re good here,” UVa junior Akil Mitchell said, “so hopefully we can get it rocking.”
The Spartans made headlines last year when they upset Missouri in an NCAA tournament first-round game in Omaha, Neb. Only one starter returned from that Norfolk State team, 6-6 junior Pendarvis Williams, but he’s surrounded by veterans.
NSU starts four juniors and a senior. Its reserves include 6-8 Rashid Gaston, who averages 8.2 points and 6.2 rebounds. Williams (14.1 ppg) recently was named the MEAC player of the year, and Gaston is “one of the best freshmen, not only in their league, but maybe in this Mid-Atlantic region,” McKay said.
These teams have met only once, in a Dec. 20, 2010, game at JPJ, where the Cavaliers won 50-49 on a last-second tip-in by center Assane Sene. Their paths, though, seem to cross often.
Norfolk State was among the other teams at last season’s Paradise Jam tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Virginia played TCU, Drexel and Drake. Then last March the Spartans and the Cavaliers were sent to the same NCAA regional in Omaha. (UVa lost to Florida in the first round.)
McKay put together UVa’s scouting report on Norfolk State, which went 16-0 in MEAC play during the regular season. The Spartans are in their sixth year under Anthony Evans, a candidate for the Ben Jobe Award, which is presented annually to the top minority coach in Division I men’s basketball.
Evans already has been named MEAC coach of the year for 2012-13.
“First of all, they’re very well-coached,” McKay said. “And they’re a confident group. They’ve got a swagger about them, because they went to the NCAA tournament last year and beat a Missouri team that was ranked and seeded high. Then they followed that up with an undefeated non-conference regular season, so they probably are feeling the sting of a conference tournament loss. But being selected to the NIT is a chance for them, just like us, to maybe recapture some of the good basketball that we were playing earlier.”
If the Cavaliers lose Tuesday night, McKay said, it won’t be because they underestimated the Spartans.
“I think because of the way Coach Bennett leads our group, we don’t ever get caught up in thinking we’re better than we are,” McKay said. “Nor do we think we’re as bad as some may say. So I think our team will respect [the Spartans]. We have a familiarity and a respect level for them that is genuine and authentic.”
Once the Spartans lost in the quarterfinals of the MEAC tournament last Wednesday, they knew their next game would be in the NIT. The Cavaliers, by contrast, didn’t learn their postseason fate until Sunday night. That’s when the fields for the NCAA tournament and, later, the NIT were announced.
A win over NC State in the ACC tourney quarterfinals — or another regular-season victory — might well have earned the Cavaliers a second straight invitation to the NCAAs. After coming so close, Mitchell said, “I just want to take my frustrations out [on NIT opponents], and I really feel like everybody feels like that, Jontel especially.”
Of the players in Bennett’s rotation, only 5-11 point guard Jontel Evans is a senior. Like his teammates, he’d love to end the season in Madison Square Garden.
“Knowing that each game could be my last, I’m just going to leave it all on the floor,” Evans said Sunday night.
The UVa-NSU winner will face St. John’s or Saint Joseph’s in the second round. If the Cavaliers win Tuesday night, their next game is likely to be at JPJ, too.