By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CLEMSON, S.C. — The UVa men’s basketball team ended nearly 13 years of frustration Jan. 4 with a win at Florida State. For the Cavaliers, the victory snapped a 17-game losing streak in the Sunshine State.
Their struggles at Clemson’s Littlejohn Coliseum haven’t been as pronounced. Still, the Wahoos have dropped four straight at Littlejohn since winning there Jan. 28, 2007, when they scored the game’s final 15 points to stun the Tigers 64-63.
For UVa seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, their final opportunity to win at Littlejohn comes Saturday. Virginia (20-5, 11-1), the ACC’s second-place team, takes on Clemson (15-8, 6-5) at noon. The Cavaliers are ranked No. 16 in the USA Today coaches poll and No. 17 by The Associated Press.
A victory Saturday would extend UVa’s winning streak to nine games. Moreover, it would add another entry to the list of the team’s notable achievements this season.
“When you’re able to do something that the program hasn’t done in a while, that just shows that the program is headed in the right direction,” Harris said.
“That’s what I came here for. That’s what a lot of us come here for, to get this thing rolling in the right direction, and for us to come in and get wins like at Florida State, when the program hasn’t gotten a win there in a long time, is huge. So for us to do the same with Clemson would be just another thing for the program to build on.”
Mitchell and Harris are 0-2 at Clemson, and neither game was close. The `Hoos lost 60-48 on Feb. 24, 2012, and 59-44 on Jan. 12, 2013. The Tigers are 10-1 at Littlejohn this season.
“It seems like every time we go down there it’s a tough place to play,” Harris said, “and Clemson’s just a tough team, defensive-minded, kind of like us.”
The numbers back up Harris. Virginia leads the nation in scoring defense, having allowed an average of only 55.5 points per game, and Clemson (55.7) is second.
Among ACC teams, Clemson and UVa are the leaders in field-goal percentage defense. Each is allowing opponents to shoot 38.2 percent.
“They make you earn what you get,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said of the Tigers.
Like Bennett, who’s in his fifth season at UVa, Clemson coach Brad Brownell has made rugged defense his No. 1 priority. Their philosophies are similar in some ways, but there are crucial differences, according to Ritchie McKay, Virginia’s associate head coach.
The Tigers “bring a level of athleticism to every position that typically we don’t, so it makes them that much more stellar defensively,” said McKay, who prepared UVa’s scouting report for this game.
Athleticism is only part of what makes Clemson forward K.J. McDaniels special. A 6-6, 200-pound junior from Birmingham, Ala., McDaniels ranks sixth among ACC players in scoring (17 ppg), seventh in rebounding (7.4), sixth in field-goal percentage (46.3) and first in blocked shots (2.7 per game).
In Clemson’s most recent game, a 68-64 double-overtime loss at Notre Dame, McDaniels totaled 30 points, 13 rebounds, six blocks, three assists and two steals.
“He’s pretty complete,” Bennett said. “That kind of athleticism is unique, and he’s quick with it. He’s just playing at an extremely high level and has been important in their success.
“He’s certainly a guy you gotta be focused on, because he can hurt you in more than one way. He’s really, really improved.”
As a sophomore, McDaniels posted solid-but-not-spectacular averages: 10.9 points, 5 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.1 assists.
“The biggest difference is, he’s confident,” McKay said. “He thinks he’s one of the best players in the league, and he has reason to believe that.”
Virginia has quieted several elite scorers this season, among them Wake Forest’s Travis McKie, NC State’s T.J. Warren, Boston College’s Olivier Hanlan, Pittsburgh’s Lamar Patterson and North Carolina’s Marcus Paige.
If the Cavaliers have similar success against McDaniels, it will be the result of a collective effort, McKay said. Several UVa defenders are likely to take turns covering McDaniels, including the 6-6 Harris, 6-6 Justin Anderson, 6-5 Malcolm Brogdon and 6-8 Akil Mitchell.
“We play defense as a team,” McKay said. “Sure, we’ve got individuals that probably are a little better on the ball or maybe off the ball, defending ball screens, what have you, but if you score against us, you score against our team, not just one man. I think we’ll put a couple of different guys against K.J. throughout the game.”
Among ACC teams, UVa (66.2 ppg) ranks 13th in scoring offense. Clemson (62.3) is 14th. Nobody expects a shootout Saturday.
“So I think we have to keep sticking to our formula, our blueprint, and go in there and play each possession as a meaningful one,” McKay said. “Because typically in games like this the possessions are fewer, and fewer possessions means a heightened need for execution.”
The Cavaliers are coming off a stretch in which they played four games in nine days. They capped it by beating Maryland 61-53 on Monday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
Under NCAA rules, Virginia players had to be off Tuesday and Wednesday. The Cavaliers went through spirited practices at JPJ on Thursday and Friday.
In 2012-13, after upsetting No. 3 Duke at JPJ, Virginia dropped two of its final three regular-season games, then lost to NC State in the ACC tournament. In the offseason, Bennett revised his practice schedule.
“In hopes to try to get us to finish a little stronger, he eased back practice,” McKay said. “We’ve shaved at least 20 to 30 minutes off of each practice in an effort to try to keep our guys fresh and healthy. Now, sometimes the schedule has necessitated that. However, I think it’s been his plan from the beginning of the season.”
Six regular-season games remain for UVa, which is assured of finishing with a winning record in ACC play for the third year in a row. The Cavaliers would like nothing more than to kick off their closing stretch with a breakthrough at Littlejohn.
“Going down there, that’s quite a place to play,” Bennett said. “You really have to have a mindset to be ready to go.”