By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As the victories have piled up — its winning streak is now at 11 games — the UVa men’s basketball team has resisted the temptation to look too far ahead. The Cavaliers, following the lead of their head coach, Tony Bennett, stay focused on their next practice, their next game, their challenge.
They’re not oblivious, though, to the opportunity before them. With little more than a week left in the regular season, the Wahoos (23-5, 14-1), ranked No. 11 in the USA Today coaches poll, lead the ACC, a game ahead of No. 5 Syracuse (26-2, 13-2).
Only once — in 1980-81 — has Virginia won the ACC regular-season title outright.
At 7 p.m. Wednesday, the `Hoos host Miami (14-13, 5-9) at John Paul Jones Arena, and a victory would move them still closer to their goal. In its home finale, Virginia meets Syracuse at JPJ at 4 p.m. Saturday.
UVa closes the regular season March 9 at Maryland (15-13, 7-8).
“It’s definitely a big deal,” redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon said of the regular-season crown. “If we achieve it, it’s another milestone, it’s a huge accomplishment for us.
“While we do try to focus on each day, each practice, each game coming up, that is a goal at the end of the day, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
On the ACC coaches’ teleconference Monday, Bennett disagreed that the regular-season championship was insignificant.
“I think it’s very important,” Bennett said. A conference race, he added, is “the test of time, that’s the test of the long haul of 18 games. Though it’s not like it was in the past, where every team plays a perfect [round-robin in the ACC], that skews it a bit, but in a way it’s a view of a longer, bigger snapshot of quality and of your season.”
The Cavaliers’ lone ACC loss came Jan. 13 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where they fell 69-65 to Duke. On that night, the `Hoos weren’t far removed from the humbling loss they suffered Dec. 30 to Tennessee, which destroyed them 87-52 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
If there was a turning point to Virginia’s season, everyone associated with Bennett’s program agrees, it was the nationally televised debacle in Knoxville.
It’s one thing to lose close games, as UVa did to VCU and Green Bay early in the season. “But then when you lose big and handily, like we did at Tennessee, you say, `OK, we’ve got to try to make some adjustments,’ ” Bennett said.
Among other things, the coaching staff simplified the offense, adopting a system similar to the one that helped the `Hoos reach the NCAA tournament in 2012.
The results have been astounding. Starting with their ACC opener — a 62-50 victory at Florida State — the Cavaliers have won 10 of their past 15 games by at least 10 points. And they’ve done so without a dominant offensive player.
Brogdon, a 6-5 guard who sat out last season while recovering from a foot injury, leads UVa in scoring (12.3 ppg).
Among ACC players, Brogdon is not in the top 20 in scoring. Neither is 6-6 senior Joe Harris, who’s averaging 11.5 points. But their modest statistics belie their value to the Cavaliers — and their stature in the ACC.
Brogdon and Harris are “absolutely sensational by just being good basketball players,” said Miami coach Jim Larranaga, a former UVa assistant. “Those two guys, they’ve just elevated their games and taken their team with them.”
As a junior, when Virginia had limited options on offense, Harris averaged 16.3 points and made the All-ACC first team. He’s averaging 8.6 field-goal attempts per game this season, three fewer than in 2012-13.
UVa has six players averaging 6.8 points or more. The Cavaliers’ balance speaks to their selflessness.
“It starts at the top,” Bennett said. “When I say top, I mean your top player, your returning scorer from last year, Joe Harris, who took more shots last year. The way he’s embraced just doing whatever he can to make the team as good as it can, and he doesn’t mind taking less shots. He doesn’t need to be a volume shooter.
“If need be, he’ll look to be aggressive, but he’s so unselfish in terms of making the extra pass and doesn’t care if he’s the leading scorer, leading shot-attempt guy or not.”
One of his assistants, Bennett said, remarked that it’s “a good thing when one of your best players is willing to just do what it takes, and I think that’s started with Joe … That’s why, I think, it’s been different guys on different nights, and the shots have been distributed equally.”
And that’s what Virginia basketball is all about.
“That’s our way,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to rely on each other with our team defense, team offense, and then there’s room certainly for individual players to shine and do things. But that’s enjoyable, when you see a group collectively coming together, and that’s how we’ve tried to build this.”
Brogdon said: “One of our pillars in this program is unity. We’ve really come together as a team and just sort of embraced winning together and not worrying about our own agendas or worrying about stats. And I think that’s something Coach Bennett preaches to us every day, and we’ve really bought into the system, and we can really say the No. 1 goal is winning now.”
The `Hoos play only one freshman, point guard London Perrantes, who has more than three times as many assists (103) as turnovers (28). UVa’s veterans remember the disappointment they felt on Selection Sunday last year — in part, senior big man Akil Mitchell said Monday, because he won’t let his teammates forget.
“I remind us every chance I get of how it felt to not make the [NCAA] tournament last year,” Mitchell said, “and to remember that if we want to accomplish our goals, we have to take it one game at a time. I think that’s something all of us are really focused on, and I think that’s something that’s necessary for us to finish the way we want to.”
Miami hasn’t played in Charlottesville since Jan. 7, 2012. In the ACC opener for both teams that season, a late defensive stand allowed the No. 21 `Hoos to hold off the Hurricanes 52-51 at JPJ.
A season ago, Miami edged Virginia 54-50 in Coral Gables, Fla. The `Canes went on to sweep the ACC regular-season and tournament titles. From that team, however, Larranaga lost his top six players, and inconsistency has marked Miami’s 2013-14 season.
Still, the `Canes have won three of their past four games, and “we know they’re a very capable team and will come in here with a chip on their shoulder,” Brogdon said. “We have a target on our back, and we’ll try to establish Virginia basketball at the beginning of the game.”
Mitchell said: “It’s always a tight game [with Miami]. Hopefully this one won’t be.”
Virginia has won 16 straight ACC games at JPJ. That the `Hoos will play at home only twice more this season, Brogdon said, is hard to believe.
“It goes by very quickly,” he said, “especially when you’re winning. Games go by. When you’re having fun, stuff goes by quickly, and we’ve been having fun. But we still try to live in the moment and enjoy the success we’re having right now.”
The Syracuse game is sold out, but tickets remain for the Miami game. For information, visit VirginiaSports.com/tickets or call (800) 542-8821.