By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Much has been made of the North Carolina men’s basketball team’s losses to Belmont and UAB and its slow start in ACC play this season.
When Virginia coach Tony Bennett and his assistants look at UNC, however, they see a team that has defeated defending NCAA champion Louisville, then-No. 1 Michigan State — in East Lansing, no less — and the supremely talented Kentucky Wildcats.
“Let’s delve back into reality,” associate head coach Ritchie McKay said after practice Sunday at John Paul Jones Arena. “This is a good team. You don’t beat Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky if you’re not a good team. Just because they’ve struggled from the free-throw line and maybe lacked some consistency offensively doesn’t mean this team isn’t capable of beating anyone on any court at any time.
“We realize that. We have a great deal of respect for them, and we will prepare like it’s any really, really good basketball team, which they are.”
At 7 p.m. Monday, in the second game of its three-game homestand, UVa (13-5, 4-1) takes on ACC rival Carolina (11-6, 1-3) at JPJ, where a near-capacity crowd is expected. Both teams won at home Saturday, the Wahoos 78-66 over Florida State, the Tar Heels 82-71 over Boston College.
For the Cavaliers, who are tied for second place in the ACC, this will be their second straight appearance on ESPN’s Big Monday showcase.
A week ago, two nights after routing NC State in Raleigh, they played Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils, who came into the game with a 1-2 conference record, overcame a late UVa rally and won 69-65.
McKay, who put together the scouting report on UNC, said the Cavaliers prepared for this two-games-in-three-days stretch much as they did on the road last week.
“Most of the guys on our staff are from the Pac-12,” McKay said, “and that was the norm [in that conference], so I think from a coaching standpoint we’ve got a little bit of a routine that we would tend to follow. The problem is, the second game has been Duke and North Carolina.”
Like McKay, Bennett is wary of UNC.
“That’s a storied program, and they have very gifted players, and when your back gets against the wall, as we saw against Duke, teams come out and respond,” Bennett said.
“I know [the Heels] got off to a slow start, but they’ve shown great basketball in tough settings at different times this year, and you’ve got to be ready for that.”
Carolina’s best player is sophomore point guard Marcus Paige, a former UVa recruiting target. Paige leads the Tar Heels in scoring (17.2 ppg) and assists (4.2) and is tied for second in steals (1.5).
“When you think of Marcus Paige, you think of the heir apparent, or the successor, to Kendall Marshall,” McKay said, referring to the former UNC point guard who now plays for the NBA’s Lakers.
“But he’s different than Kendall. He can score the basketball with a runner, with a 3-point shot, and then he creates so many easy opportunities for his teammates, via the lob or just a very sound post feed. We’re very familiar with his game because we really recruited him hard, and he’s definitely a key cog to that engine.”
Virginia’s roster includes four players from North Carolina: senior Akil Mitchell (Charlotte), redshirt sophomore Anthony Gill (High Point) and sophomores Teven Jones (Kannapolis) and Caid Kirven (Raleigh).
Gill began his college career at South Carolina, where he started 26 games as a freshman in 2011-12. He left after that season and considered Ohio State and North Carolina, which made a late push for him, before transferring to UVa.
That Gill could have been a Tar Heel adds little significance to Monday night’s game for him, the 6-8, 230-pound forward said after practice Sunday.
“Not really,” Gill said. “It was an honor to be offered by them, but I just see it as another game.”
Gill, who has started six games in his first season at UVa, is averaging 7.8 points and 3.7 rebounds and shooting 62.2 percent from the floor. He’s still trying to define his role on offense, but a greater challenge for Gill has been learning the intricacies of Bennett’s trademark Pack Line defense.
He’s improving on that end of the floor, but he’s not where he wants to be.
“I’m just trying to focus on my defense this year,” Gill said. “I’m not really focusing too much on offense. I’m just trying to help my team as much as I can defensively so I can stay on the court for longer periods of time and so my teammates can trust me.”
Gill contributed eight points and four rebounds in 16 minutes Saturday against FSU. Another Virginia big man, 6-11 sophomore Mike Tobey, had 13 points (and three boards) in 29 minutes. He could have had scored many more. Tobey made only 4 of 11 shots from the floor against FSU, whose interior defense is probably the ACC’s best. The Seminoles blocked nine shots Saturday.
“I struggled a little bit,” Tobey said. “They blocked my shots a couple times. Their length is so ridiculous. You pump-fake once, and there’s someone else coming down.”
After shooting 53 percent from the floor as a freshman, Tobey has dipped to 43.1 percent this season. He’s playing at around 250 pounds this season — some 10 more than he carried on his frame in 2012-13 — and is still adjusting to the extra weight.
Tobey needs to get stronger and make better use of fakes around the rim, Bennett said Saturday. “It’s a process … Florida State’s a hard team to finish [against]. We finished better this time than [Jan. 4 in Tallahassee]. They were playing paddleball last time against us. We couldn’t get much at the rim. This time we got a few at the rim, but those are obviously long, big, athletic guys.
“He’s got to keep working on the finishing and getting better with fakes and using touch. But I thought he did some good things, and I think that’s a work in progress.”
Joe Harris’ offensive game needs less refining. Harris, a 6-6 senior, made the All-ACC first team last season, and he leads the Cavaliers in scoring (11.3 ppg) again. Since returning from the concussion he suffered Jan. 4 in Tallahassee, an injury that sidelined him for the final 37:37 of that game, Harris has made 19 of 36 shots from the floor, including 11 of 19 from beyond the 3-point arc. He also totaled seven assists in those four games.
In the rematch with FSU, Harris finished with 18 points, four rebounds and three assists Saturday.
At times, Bennett acknowledged after the game, it may seem as if Harris “not getting enough shots. He’s getting guarded hard, but he’s getting shots for other guys, and he’s very efficient. And obviously he was moving hard and was very sharp today.”
Now comes UNC, which Virginia had not beaten at John Paul Jones Arena until last season.
“I’m very excited to play against Carolina,” Harris said. “Very talented team. They’ve shown that they can play with anyone in the country, and I’m sure they’re going to come into our place and play pretty well.”
McKay said: “We get a Carolina team we’re certain is going to be ready. I hope we’re as ready, if not more. We should be, given the fact that we should have a pretty electric atmosphere in JPJ.”