By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
RALEIGH, N.C. — A smile spread across his face, Anthony Gill made his way down the aisle Wednesday. “Good afternoon, good afternoon,” Gill said to everyone he passed. A few minutes later, the charter bus pulled away from John Paul Jones Arena, and UVa’s journey in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was officially under way.
At 4:30 p.m., after a trip that included a showing of the film Unknown, the bus reached its destination: the Raleigh hotel at which the Cavaliers hope to stay through the weekend.
At approximately 9:25 p.m. Friday, third-ranked Virginia (28-6), the No. 1 seed in the East Regional, meets No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina (21-12) in a second-round game at PNC Arena. The winner will meet No. 8 seed Memphis or No. 9 seed George Washington on Sunday in Raleigh, at a time to be determined.
UVa, which swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles, is in the NCAAs for the second time in Tony Bennett’s five years as head coach. Two years ago, however, Virginia staggered into the tournament as the No. 10 seed in the West Region.
“We’re at a different place,” Bennett said this week.
In 2012, the Wahoos dropped four of their final six regular-season games, then lost their first game in the ACC tournament. Injuries and attrition had left Virginia with only seven healthy scholarship players, not including guard Doug Browman, a walk-on for his first three years, and the top two reserves were seldom-used freshmen Darion Atkins and Paul Jesperson.
Moreover, Joe Harris, then a sophomore, was playing with a broken non-shooting hand, and the Cavaliers’ opponent in Omaha, Neb., was a Florida team that probably deserved better than a No. 7 seed.
“Going to Omaha, we were definitely limping into the tournament,” Harris recalled Wednesday night after practice at NC State’s historic Reynolds Coliseum.
“So this is definitely a much different feeling. It’s still very cool going to the tournament. All that stuff is similar, but I think there’s more confidence in this team than there was going into Omaha.”
The `Hoos arrived in Raleigh with a full complement of players, all healthy enough to play Friday night. Heading into the 2012 NCAAs, Harris said, “I remember it just seemed like we had really worn down. Guys were just tired, everybody was hurting, and then obviously Florida was extremely tough. So that was an extremely tough game.”
UVa went up 12-4 early and still led 14-8 with about 11 minutes left in the first half. But Coach Billy Donovan’s Gators reeled off nine straight points and then applied relentless pressure the rest of the way in a 71-45 rout.
“I remember Donovan just subbing in waves of guys, and they just ball-screened the [dickens] out of us,” Harris said. “They’d bring in a fresh set and keep on going, and we just wore down. It was close for the first half, and then in the second half they just ran away with it.”
Bennett used eight players in that game. Only three are still in the program: Harris, classmate Akil Mitchell and Atkins.
“The survivors,” Atkins said Wednesday night, smiling. “We’re the guys who lived to tell the tale.”
The NCAA experience in 2012 “was nice in the very beginning,” Atkins said. “We had fun leading up to the game. Game time, you know what happened.
“It’s a big difference this year. I feel like we took a great leap. We got a lot more depth, we got a lot more talent than a few years ago.”
Virginia’s 2012-13 season nearly ended with another trip to the NCAA tournament. After upsetting No. 3 Duke at JPJ on Feb. 28, 2013, the Cavaliers were well-positioned to earn another invitation. But they lost three of their next four games and ended up in the NIT.
Before the NCAA field was announced Sunday night, Bennett said, “I just reminded the guys, I said, `Remember last year when we watched the selection show? Remember us sitting there hoping we were going to get in, thinking we were on the bubble maybe?’ ”
Harris said: “We experienced the low of last year, of watching and not getting our name called, and then this year the high of getting a No. 1 seed, and I think because we were able to experience that last year, that makes us that much more grateful and just thankful that you even have the opportunity to play in the tournament and get the No. 1 seed.”
To say this team is more tournament-tested than its 2011-12 counterpart would be a major understatement.
In late November, UVa defeated SMU and Missouri State on consecutive nights to win the Corpus Christi Challenge. On a much bigger stage, the `Hoos won three games in three days last weekend — defeating Florida State, Pittsburgh and, finally, Duke — to capture the ACC tournament for the first time since 1976.
The Corpus Christi experience “helped,”Mitchell said Monday at JPJ, “and being able to play again in the ACC tournament, and having that experience of consecutive days playing, it’ll bode well for us down the stretch, because we know what it’s like to have to face a good team every day.”
With his team slotted into the late game at PNC Arena on Friday night, Bennett revised the Cavaliers’ schedule this week. They usually practice in the afternoon, but they convened Tuesday at JPJ for an 8 p.m. session. In Raleigh, they arrived at Reynolds Coliseum around 8 p.m. Wednesday.
“It’s been interesting,” Harris said of the late practices. “You’re riding on the bus over here and you’re a little bit sleepy, but I think it’s going to be helpful in the long run to get us adjusted.”
Bennett, the ACC coach of the year, has seen what can happen to a team that’s worn down heading into postseason. And so he’s worked all season with strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis to modify the Cavaliers’ practices this season and try to ensure the team peaks in March.
“I would say the intensity level and all that is still the same with practice, but it’s just the duration,” Harris said. Bennett has “kind of shortened things down a little bit, especially here later in the season. It doesn’t seem like we go past an hour, really, but they’re all really efficient and effective practices.”