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Jan. 11, 2014

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Coming off impressive victories over Florida State and Wake Forest, UVa is tied for first place in ACC men’s basketball. Can the Cavaliers handle prosperity? Fifth-year coach Tony Bennett knows potential pitfalls lie ahead for his team.

Virginia (11-4, 2-0) plays at NC State (11-4, 1-1) at 5 p.m. Saturday and at No. 13 Duke (12-3, 1-1) at 7 p.m. Monday.

“It’s a delicate balance, because basketball’s not a game where you can be comfortable, especially for us,” Bennett said after practice Thursday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena. “You look at past history, you look at teams that have a nice win and then go on the road, if they’re not ready or they’re not sharp, they’re in trouble.”

That happened to the Wahoos several times in 2012-13.

Three days after knocking off North Carolina at JPJ, the `Hoos lost to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. Five days after edging No. 19 NC State at JPJ, Virginia fell to Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Late in the regular season, Virginia defeated No. 3 Duke at JPJ, only to lose at Boston College three days later.

“If you don’t come with tremendous energy and purpose, you’re going to be in trouble on the road. It’s just different,” Bennett said. “Human nature is, after a win you get comfortable, you relax a little bit.”

The losses to Wake, Georgia Tech and BC — teams that were a combined 19-35 in ACC play — helped keep the `Hoos out of the NCAA tournament.

Bennett hasn’t forgotten those setbacks, and he wants to make sure his players remember, too. Virginia pummeled Wake 74-51 at JPJ on Wednesday night. The next afternoon, Bennett met with his team before practice.

“Coach Bennett addressed us today and said, `Remember last year? We beat Duke and went up and laid an egg and lost to BC,’ ” senior big man Akil Mitchell said Wednesday.

A team is especially vulnerable “when you win a couple games and you’re feeling good about yourself and you go on the road,” Mitchell said. “It’s a completely different atmosphere. You have to bring all your own energy on the road, because you don’t have the crowd behind you. It’s a challenge, but I think by addressing it right now it’ll be something we can take care.”

By around 9 p.m. Monday, the `Hoos will have played three games in six nights. “That will challenge you,” Bennett said, “but that’s why you have conditioning, and hopefully you can use your depth. All those things will be important.”

This is the deepest team Bennett has had at UVa. Nine players are averaging at least 10 minutes per game, and a 10th, sophomore guard Teven Jones, started nine games last season.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to rely on that and have guys as fresh and ready as possible,” Bennett said.

The Cavaliers practiced Thursday and Friday at JPJ before busing to Raleigh. On Tobacco Road, they’ll have little time after playing State to prepare for Duke, but Bennett has greater concerns.

“I think you can’t lose sight of the most important thing for your team, and that’s being established and as good as you can be at the stuff that’s making you play well,” he said. “For us, we kind of have a formula that doesn’t vary, doesn’t change, regardless of our opponent.”

The `Hoos want to play rugged defense, take care of the ball and limit fast-break opportunities.

“What changes with your opponent is, OK, maybe this team might play a little more zone, or this team really pressures, or this team has different personnel, and you adjustment accordingly,” Bennett said. “But the foundation’s in place, and it’s the ability to really stick to that stuff and be good and have the energy and the passion to bring that [that is necessary] to take the show on the road.

“Scouting’s important, but it’s insignificant if you’re not ready and doing well what you can do well. You better take care of your own situation and be as ready as you can.”

UVa is 4-2 away from Charlottesville this season, but three of those victories came at neutral sites. In road games, the Cavaliers are 1-2. They lost 75-72 at Green Bay and 87-52 at Tennessee before winning 62-50 at Florida State last weekend.

In its first four seasons under Bennett, Virginia won at such places as North Carolina, Minnesota, Virginia Tech, Oregon, LSU, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and NC State. The 6-8 Mitchell played in most of those victories.

Away from home, “you have to bring your own energy,” Mitchell said. “When you go on the road, you’re by yourself, and we know that we’re outmatched and we know that we’re outnumbered. That underdog mentality, when you go into some of those settings, is what you have to have. You have to have that fight, and the big wins we get on the road [come] when we have that. But at the same time, when we lose is when we don’t.”

Bennett’s record against NC State is 5-2. Each of the losses, though, came in the ACC tournament quarterfinals — the first in 2012 and the second last year.

Four players — CJ Leslie, Richard Howell, Lorenzo Brown and Scott Wood — formed the Wolfpack’s core during Mitchell’s first three seasons at UVa. All have moved on.

“I’ve seen [the Pack] play once or two, but I really can’t name too many names on their team this year,” Mitchell said. “But that just makes them more dangerous, because they’re kind of underrated.”

T.J. Warren, a 6-8 sophomore, leads the ACC in scoring (23.4 ppg) and also is State’s top rebounder (7.8 per game). Others in the Wolfpack’s rotation include freshman point guard Anthony “Cat” Barber, a graduate of Hampton High School, and redshirt junior guard Ralston Turner, a transfer UVa faced twice when he was at LSU.

Bennett said he won’t miss seeing Leslie, Howell, Brown and Wood, but this State team is “playing a little scrappier defensively and they’re a little more patient and they have some talented young guys that are playing well.”

The Pack is coming off a 77-70 win over Notre Dame at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Ind., where the Fighting Irish had knocked off Duke three nights earlier. Moreover, this NC State did something last month that UVa could not, beating Tennessee in Knoxville.

“They’ve already had big wins and played people close, so they’re very capable,” Bennett said. “For them to go on the road and beat Notre Dame is impressive, and they’ve had some good teams on the wire and haven’t been able to pull through. But it’s a good team, a talented team that has some nice pieces.”

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