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Dec. 30, 2013

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Early Sunday evening found the UVa men’s basketball team inside Thompson-Boling Arena, practicing free throws and jump shots.

Overhead hung eight national-championship banners, each commemorating an NCAA title won by the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team.

Tennessee’s tradition in men’s hoops is not as storied. Still, the Volunteers have been to the NCAA tournament six times in the past decade, and they have UVa’s full attention as the start of conference play approaches.

At 7 p.m. Monday, in a game ESPN2 will televise, Virginia (9-3) meets Tennessee (7-4) at 21,678-seat Thompson-Boling.

The Cavaliers’ ACC opener is Saturday night at Florida State (8-3). ESPN2 will televise that game, too.

“Not that we had a whole lot of easy games beforehand, but we know from here on out, the season and the competition level really picks up, starting at Tennessee,” senior guard Joe Harris said Sunday. “And then once you get into ACC play, every single game is tough.”

Before flying to Knoxville on Sunday afternoon, the Wahoos practiced at John Paul Jones Arena. The focus of the first drill was rebounding. The focus didn’t change in the second drill.

“Understand, this is going to be huge,” head coach Tony Bennett told his players at JPJ.

Led by bruising post players Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon — each is listed at 6-8, 260 pounds — Tennessee has dominated its opponents on the backboards this season. Stokes is averaging 9.6 rebounds per game and Maymon 8.5.

They’ve been especially effective when the Vols miss. Each is averaging at least four offensive rebounds per game for a team that ranks fourth nationally in that category.

“It’s gonna take all five guys to rebound tomorrow night,” Bennett said Sunday.

The Cavaliers have distinguished themselves on the glass, too, outrebounding opponents by an average of nearly 10 boards per game. Five players are averaging at least 4.1 rebounds for UVa, led by redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon (5.3).

Neither team is likely to concede anything Monday night. The Volunteers “have a motto, I heard, that they’re going to draw a line in the sand with their physicality and dare you to cross it,” Bennett said. “That’s kind of their mindset.”

Bennett is especially familiar with Stokes. A junior from Memphis, Tenn., Stokes played on the USA Basketball team that won the gold medal at FIBA’s Under-19 world championships July 7 in the Czech Republic. Bennett was an assistant coach on that team, whose other big men included UVa’s Mike Tobey.

A 6-11 sophomore, Tobey roomed with Stokes in Prague.

“Very big dude,” Tobey said Sunday night.

A year ago at JPJ, UVa beat Tennessee 46-38 in a game marked by stifling defense and horrid offense. Between them, the teams missed 71 shots from the floor.

Both ended up in the NIT after receiving consideration for the NCAA tournament, and Bennett sees similarities between the programs.

“I’m not saying exactly in terms of personnel,” Bennett said Sunday, “but Tennessee really came on last year, was a bubble team, has played some good stretches of ball this year, had a couple tough losses, and has some quality guys. But [the Vols’] physicality is their deal, and that’s their line in the sand, as they say.”

The `Hoos have won two straight since losing 75-72 at Green Bay on Dec. 7. Virginia, coming off a long break for final exams, defeated Northern Iowa 57-43 on Dec. 21. Bennett’s team dispatched Norfolk State 66-56 two nights later.

After a short Christmas break, the Cavaliers reconvened for practice Friday. “We’ve had three days of hard preparation,” Bennett said Sunday.

In 2012, UVa lost its final game before Christmas, falling to Old Dominion on Dec. 22 in Richmond. ODU entered the game with a 1-10 record. The Cavaliers headed home in a foul mood and didn’t get to play again until Dec. 30, when they blasted Wofford at JPJ.

“For us to go into the break last year, it did not end well right before Christmas, and it leaves a sour taste in your mouth,” Harris said. “And I think at the time, too, we knew that for us to have an opportunity to play in the [NCAA tournament], that game really hurt us, and it kind of lingered with us most of the year, just kind of in the back of our mind.

“So for us to get two wins against quality teams [this year] and play well going into the break and not let up at all, even though everyone was excited to get home for Christmas and see their families, I think it’s a good carryover for us going forward the rest of the season.”

Four of UVa’s next five games are on the road. Virginia’s lone game at JPJ during that stretch will be Jan. 8 against Wake Forest.

In his remarks to his players Sunday, Bennett addressed the challenge facing the Cavaliers.

“I just told them, `Listen, you gotta know that this competition steps up nightly,’ ” Bennett said.

His players must be ready to play the full 40 minutes every time they take the floor, Bennett said. “You’re not gonna get away with anything but a complete game. Not that they’re going to be perfect, but they’re going to have to understand that major lapses can cost you in this setting.”

That wasn’t the only point he emphasized to his team Sunday.

Bennett reminded his players that “they’re capable,” he said. “We are capable of going in there and competing and being successful. I think they have to understand that when they’re really lathered up defensively and right defensively, and then offensively we’re eliminating some of the careless mistakes, whether it’s just turnovers or a different kind of shot that maybe we shouldn’t take, and getting a good look — whether it’s early in the shot clock or late — then we become effective.”

When his players “understand that this can’t be a sometimes thing, this is an all-the-time thing, then they become very capable, and that’s what I told them,” Bennett said.

Virginia’s losses were to teams — VCU, No. 4 Wisconsin and Green Bay — that have a combined record of 33-6. The Cavaliers’ most impressive wins came at the Corpus Christi Challenge, where they defeated SMU and Missouri State to capture the tournament title in late November. SMU and Missouri State are each 10-2.

Still to come for the `Hoos are games against such teams as No. 2 Syracuse, No. 9 Duke, No. 19 North Carolina, Florida State, NC State and Pittsburgh, as well as, of course, Tennessee.

“We know that from here on out there’s plenty of opportunities for us to prove ourselves,” said Harris, who leads UVa in scoring (11.4 ppg). “We haven’t exactly had any marquee wins or anything like that, but I think we’ve played solid ball, and our résumé speaks to that, and there’s going to be a lot of opportunities ahead of us to get a marquee win or two.”

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