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Jan. 4, 2014

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In an arena where it has known nothing but misery for more than a decade, the UVa men’s basketball team faces a tall task Saturday. Literally.

In its ACC opener, Virginia takes on a Florida State team whose starters are listed at 6-3, 6-7, 6-9, 6-9 and 7-3, respectively. The Seminoles’ reserves include 7-1, 290-pound Michael Ojo and 6-9, 225-pound Jarquez Smith.

“They’re bigger than most NBA teams,” UVa assistant coach Jason Williford said Friday.

Until he began preparing the scouting report on the `Noles, “I hadn’t seen a team like this,” said Williford, a former Virginia player.

“Maybe the Carolina teams with [Eric] Montross and [Kevin] Salvadori and those guys, but these [FSU] guards, and some of their other guys, are much bigger and longer.”

At 5 p.m., in a game ESPN2 will televise, Virginia (9-4) meets FSU (9-3) at the Donald L. Tucker Center. On Feb. 17, 2001, a last-second 3-pointer by guard Roger Mason Jr. lifted UVa to a 69-66 victory over host Florida State. Since then, the Wahoos have lost 10 straight in the Seminoles’ arena.

“It’s a tough place to play,” said Akil Mitchell, one-half of the Cavaliers’ senior class. (Joe Harris is the other half.)

“I haven’t won there yet. So Joe and I are going to be eager to get a win down there, and the rest of the guys should be, especially coming off a loss like this.”

Mitchell was referring, of course, to UVa’s disastrous showing Monday night in Knoxville, Tenn. In another nationally televised game, the `Hoos lost 87-52 to Tennessee — their second-largest margin of defeat in five seasons under head coach Tony Bennett.

“We did not answer the bell at all,” Bennett said on his radio show Thursday night. “They really manhandled us in every way, shape and form. You gotta learn from it. A painful experience, but hopefully a valuable lesson … Sometimes a humbling experience like that strips you down to the bare bones, and then you go from there.”

Practices at John Paul Jones Arena this week were intense, as the coaches pushed the players hard.

“That Tennessee game was a butt-whipping,” Williford said, “and hopefully an eye-opening experience for our guys. Hopefully they say, `Hey, we gotta step up. Every practice is important, every possession is important. We gotta focus on taking care of the ball, getting back to defending the way we need to defend.’ “

Mitchell said: “It’s been tough. We’re trying to figure out the things that we have to shore up, making adjustments and just working hard in practice. We’re excited to get a chance to bounce back.”

A season ago, UVa hammered the `Noles 56-36 in Charlottesville and lost 53-51 to them in Tallahassee. That Virginia team finished 23-12 after losing in the NIT quarterfinals. The return of such players as Harris, Mitchell, Justin Anderson, Mike Tobey and Darion Atkins, coupled with the availability of Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, both of whom sat out last season, raised expectations for the Cavaliers in 2013-14.

In the preseason poll of media members who cover the ACC, Virginia was picked to finish fourth in the league. So far, though, the `Hoos rarely have looked like a team bound for the NCAA tournament.

“I think with some of the expectations, guys expected it to come easy,” Mitchell said Friday at JPJ. “I don’t want to say we haven’t been working hard, but our mindset wasn’t as much on being strong, being mentally tough, being ready, and I think that’s kind of hurt us in a couple of the games. You can see it on the floor at times. We get tired and make little mistakes here and there that hurt us down the stretch. I think that part of that comes from just not being mentally prepared.”

Mitchell said the players have talked among themselves about the areas in which they need to improve.

“We haven’t had any interventions or team meetings or anything like that,” he said. “But this is a really close-knit team, which is a special thing to be a part of, whether you’re winning or losing. I think we’re really starting to understand and kind of accept what we need to do. Sometimes it takes a loss like Tennessee. Sometimes it takes a loss like VCU or Wisconsin, to really understand what we need to do and how we need to play to be successful.

“If it takes that, if it takes some guys getting their feelings hurt, like I said we’re a close team, and we’ll all rally together.”

At 6-8, 235 pounds, Mitchell is one of the Cavaliers’ biggest players. (Only the 6-11 Tobey is taller). Florida State has six players taller than 6-8, though one of them, 7-0 Kiel Turpin, has been sidelined by a knee injury.

“They’re huge,” Mitchell said. Moreover, the `Noles “bother passing lanes a little bit more and might be a little tougher defensively this year. So we’re just going to have to be smart with the ball, be strong. We’ve faced big teams before. It’ll be a tough one. They’re a good, physical, long team, and they’re athletic, but it’ll be a good one. We’ve got some athletic guys too.”

The Seminoles are 5-0 at home this season. They lost to Michigan (82-80 in overtime) at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off and dropped road games at Florida (67-66) and Minnesota (71-61).

“I think the big thing is slowing them down,” Williford said. “You gotta get back in transition, and then you gotta limit them to one shot.

“If you give them second-chance points and offensive rebounds, it’s going to be a long day. If you give them easy transition points, it’ll be a long day. They’re shooting almost 50 percent as a team, so they’re getting high-percentage shots. We gotta limit those.”

Stifling defense has been the Cavaliers’ trademark during Bennett’s tenure, but they offered little resistance in Knoxville. Starting Saturday, Virginia’s players will have multiple opportunities to prove that performance was an aberration.

“I think it’s now just about freeing up their minds to go play,” Williford said. “Forget Tennessee. We’re into ACC play. We got a clean slate, so to speak.”

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