By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The UVa men’s basketball team has yet to play any of these ACC opponents this season: North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Clemson, Miami or Syracuse. By about 2 p.m. Saturday, however, Virginia will have played Florida State twice.
Such scheduling quirks occur periodically in the expanded ACC. In the conference opener for both teams, the Cavaliers never trailed Jan. 4 in a 62-50 victory over FSU in Tallahassee, Fla. The rematch is Saturday at noon at John Paul Jones Arena.
The Seminoles have won three straight games since losing to UVa and seven of their past eight overall.
“They’re playing good ball,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “We’re excited to be back home but certainly have great respect for them, and when you play a team so close together and you’ve beaten that team, you know you’ll have their attention. We know we gotta be ready.”
Virginia (12-5, 3-1) and Florida State (12-4, 3-1) are tied with Clemson (12-4, 3-1) for second place in the ACC, behind Syracuse (17-0, 4-0) and Pittsburgh (17-1, 4-0).
For most of the Wahoos, Saturday’s game will be their second in two weeks against the `Noles. For All-ACC guard Joe Harris, Virginia’s leading scorer (10.9 ppg), it will essentially be his first.
Harris, a 6-6 senior, suffered a concussion early in the first half at the Donald L. Tucker Center when he was inadvertently hit in the head first by Mike Tobey’s elbow and then by the knee of another teammate, Akil Mitchell. Harris left the game at the 17:37 mark and did not return.
“I was really excited to start off conference play and have a shot at them, and then I didn’t get to play,” Harris said Thursday at JPJ. “It was tough watching from the bench, but at the same time I was really happy with how we played.”
In winning at FSU for the first time since 2001, the Cavaliers bounced back from a humiliating Dec. 30 loss at Tennessee. They shot poorly — 32.8 percent from the floor and 54.5 percent from line — but had only six turnovers and played lockdown defense.
The Seminoles, who turned the ball over 16 times, shot only 30.8 percent from the floor, and their leading scorer, senior guard Ian Miller (13.7 ppg) missed 6 of 8 shots from the floor.
“We defended well in that game and took care of the ball,” Bennett said. “I’m sure [the `Noles] feel like they probably didn’t play their best game, but for us it was the start of trying to take better care of the ball and be as sound as we can on the defensive end.”
Both teams have shown they can win on the road. FSU has won at Clemson and, most recently, at Miami. Virginia hammered NC State 76-45 in Raleigh a week after breaking through in Tallahassee.
The `Hoos came agonizingly close to securing a third ACC road win Monday night against No. 20 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Virginia, which trailed by 11 with 3:30 to play, rallied to take a 65-64 lead on two free throws by redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon with 36 seconds left. But the Blue Devils made the big plays in the final 25 seconds and escaped with a 69-65 victory.
“It was a tough loss for us,” Brogdon said Thursday. “We went in there, we played well and competed, but we’re not content with losing, even to a team of that caliber.”
Bennett wasn’t content, either. Still, he liked his team’s effort in Durham.
“I don’t want to be over the top, but we came from behind in a tough environment and could have folded our tents, and we didn’t, so that was the positive,” Bennett said. “I think when you’re in an emotional, hard-fought game, it’s best to say, `All right, there’s a couple good things, and we’ll watch the tape and evaluate the things we need improving on,’ and we did that.
“There were certain things that we talked a lot about: the second-chance points that we gave up and a few defensive breakdowns that we want to take out of the equation. A couple fundamental breakdowns occurred that didn’t need to, so we really looked at those and talked about cleaning those things up.”
After practice Thursday, Bennett repeated a comment he made at his press conference Monday night at Cameron.
“It wasn’t a make-or-break game,” he said. “Yeah, it would have been terrific to win, but it wasn’t making our season, just like losing doesn’t break it. It’s what you do the next game and the next game, and I think that mentality has got to be there for us. I’d love to have won, but we didn’t.”
The `Noles present problems that the perimeter-oriented Blue Devils did not. FSU is ridiculously tall for a college team. Longtime coach Leonard Hamilton’s starters stand 6-3, 6-7, 6-9, 6-9 and 7-3, respectively, and his reserves include 7-1 Michael Ojo and 6-9 Jarquez Smith.
Among ACC teams, FSU ranks first in blocked shot (6.4 per game) and second in field goal-percentage defense (36.3).
Scoring on the Seminoles is so difficult, Harris said, “because they have such length and athleticism all the way around, and because of the style that Coach Hamilton has instilled in his players. They’re a defensive-minded team. They really get after the ball. They pressure better than most teams in the league, and in my four years here, they’re probably the defensive team in the league.”
Bennett said: “I think Florida State has the ability to do some things with their size and athleticism that few teams in the country can do. That’s why you have to be at your best against them. I know they’ll be ready, and I believe we will be too.”
In 2012-13, the `Hoos won 20 of 22 games at JPJ, including a stretch of 19 straight. They’re 7-2 at home this season. FSU’s visit kicks off a three-game homestand for Virginia, which hosts North Carolina on Monday night and Virginia Tech on Jan. 25.
“I know that we’re really excited to get back and play in front of our fans,” Harris said. “We lost a tough game at Duke, where the atmosphere is crazy, and it seemed like it kind of sped us up a little bit and almost got us into a little bit more of a frantic pace.
“We play better when we’re patient and poised and under control. I think we definitely have that when we’re playing at home, and I think we have one of the best fan bases in the country, so to come back and play in front of them is exciting for us, and we’re looking forward to these next three games at home.”
Bennett said: “We’ve won a couple on the road, and you want to really, really try to protect home court. In our league it’s a war every time out, but there should be some excitement to come back home. Nothing’s guaranteed, just because you’re at home, but you want to embrace the opportunity to play in your home gym and play to your fullest.”
Excellent crowds are expected at each of the three games. More than 1,300 single-game tickets have been sold in the past week for the homestand. About 500 tickets remain for the FSU game, about 750 remain for the UNC game, and about 300 remain for the Virginia Tech game.
Tickets can be purchased online at VirginiaSports.com, by phone at 800-542-8821 during weekday business hours, and at the John Paul Jones Arena box office on game day.