By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — All but invincible at John Paul Jones Arena in 2012-13, the UVa men’s basketball team hopes to replicate that home-court dominance this season. The next opportunity comes Wednesday night, when the Cavaliers (10-4, 1-0) host Wake Forest (11-3, 1-0) in their ACC home opener.
Virginia went 20-2 at JPJ last season, a run that included 19 straight victories. The Wahoos are 6-2 at home this season. The losses were to excellent teams — VCU and No. 4 Wisconsin have a combined record of 27-3 — but those were games the `Hoos might well have won last season.
“You want to hold the home court,” sophomore swingman Justin Anderson said after practice Tuesday at JPJ. “We did that really well last year.”
That Wake is the opponent won’t hurt the Cavaliers’ prospects Wednesday night. The Demon Deacons have lost 14 consecutive ACC road games since winning at Boston College on Jan. 21, 2012.
“We know we have to be better on the road, and I think a lot of it is mental, to be honest with you,” Wake’s Jeff Bzdelik said Monday on the ACC coaches’ teleconference.
In 2012-13, Bzdelik said, the Deacons “were so close in a couple of opportunities. I think we just need to break through it, get the monkey off our back, so to speak. We’re just going to have to be tough and play the game the right way and grind one out.”
Associate head coach Ritchie McKay scouted Wake for UVa. He won’t bring up the Deacons’ road woes with Virginia players.
“I think for us it’s really just about our team being committed to play the way we have to play for Virginia basketball to be successful,” McKay said. “We did that in Tallahassee, and we didn’t do it in Knoxville. So our commitment to the preparation and disciplined of being who we are, that’s going to be the difference between whether the streak continues or not.”
McKay was referring to the Cavaliers’ two most recent games. On Dec. 30, they lost 87-52 at Tennessee — their second-largest margin of defeat in five seasons under head coach Tony Bennett. Five days later, the `Hoos overcame the early loss of All-ACC guard Joe Harris to a concussion and won 62-50 at Florida State, ending a 10-game losing streak in Tallahassee.
Not many people outside UVa’s program predicted that outcome, Anderson noted, “due to the way Florida State’s been playing and due to our game against Tennessee. It was a situation where we had a lot of people being down on us, and we stayed together, and we battled, and we went down there with a businesslike mindset, and we played together.
“That was a tough Florida State team. They’re really good, and they’re going to make a lot of noise in the ACC this year, but the way we bounced back was tremendous.”
Now comes a different challenge for the `Hoos.
“It’s easy for us to get our heads in the clouds and think that we’re really good,” said Anderson, Virginia’s second-leading scorer (9.8 ppg), “but we have to remain humble and just continue to do what we do, because Wake Forest is a really good team.”
In 2012-13, its third season under Bzdelik, Wake finished 6-12 in ACC play and 13-18 overall. The core of that team returned this season, and there’s reason for optimism in Winston-Salem. The Deacons opened ACC play Sunday night by defeating No. 19 North Carolina 73-67 at Lawrence Joel Coliseum.
“They really are improved,” Bennett said. “Jeff’s done a real good job. In a way they’re similar to us. They’ve got a couple seniors and a bunch of sophomores, and those sophomores are good players that got a lot of experience as freshmen.”
McKay said the experience the Deacons were “able to acquire last year has really paid some dividends in their success this season. Jeff did a great job of sticking with his system and his kind of kids, and he gave them a lot of minutes as freshmen, and they seem so much more confident. The biggest difference, though, is how aggressive they are offensively. They’re getting the ball out, and if your defense isn’t set they’re going to take advantage of it.”
Sophomore guard Codi Miller-McIntyre leads Wake in scoring (16.6 ppg) and assists. Sophomore forward Devin Thomas (11.4 ppg) is the Deacons’ top rebounder (9.3 per game), and senior forward Travis McKie (10.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg) has twice received All-ACC honorable mention.
The 6-7, 220-pound McKie, who plays both forward spots, starred for John Marshall High School in Richmond.
“He doesn’t have a scouting-report weakness offensively,” McKay said. “He’s just a guy that can get buckets.”
Asked Monday if Wake’s upset of Carolina got the Cavaliers’ attention, Bennett said, “I think Tennessee got our attention and put it front and center in front of us, what happens when we’re not really locked in and how we need to be. That’s important. We were better against Florida State, certainly, and Florida State was off, but I think Wake Forest has a good ball club, and we know how we have to be.”
Harris, Virginia’s leading scorer (10.3 ppg), returned to practice Tuesday and could play Wednesday night. The 6-6 guard scored 13 points against Wake last season in Winston-Salem. That was the teams’ only meeting, and the Deacons won 55-52.
“That’s one of the games where if we were just a little bit better I think we would have been all right, but we weren’t,” Anderson said Tuesday. “They were the better team that night, and hopefully we can bounce back and get our revenge [Wednesday] night.”