March 21, 2014

By Jeff White (

RALEIGH, N.C. — The eight teams that will play Friday in the Raleigh pod of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament held open practices Thursday at PNC Arena.

As chance would have it, UVa’s locker room was next to Tennessee’s.

“That’s crazy,” Virginia sophomore Justin Anderson said.

The Cavaliers, seeded No. 1 in the East Region, won’t face the Volunteers, seeded No. 11 in the Midwest Region, this weekend in Raleigh. But it’s impossible to tell the story of UVa’s remarkable season without mentioning the role Tennessee played in it.

When the teams met Dec. 30 in Knoxville, the Vols humbled the Wahoos on national television, 87-52. The loss left Virginia, which came into the season projected as an ACC title contender, with a 9-4 record heading into conference play.

“We knew what our identity was supposed to be,” senior big man Akil Mitchell recalled Thursday, “but we didn’t live by it at all. Tennessee really exploited us on the defense end, and we didn’t run our offense hard.”

Anderson said: “After that game I remember saying, `Wow, we can’t do this on our own. We need to get back to work, and we need to correct some things.’ And the things that we needed to correct were the team mentality, the team Pack-Line concept [on defense] and making sure that we played as hard as we can together.”

After the game, assistant coach Jason Williford recalled Thursday, “I went out and shook hands with some of the [players’] parents. It was December 30th, and I said, `2014 is going to be a much better year for us,’ and they all said, `We hope so.’ But we got back to basics.”

The coaching staff simplified the offense, returning to the system the Cavaliers had used in their 2012 run to the NCAA tournament, and the players rededicated themselves to head coach Tony Bennett’s defensive principles.

“We all kind of came together,” Mitchell said. “There wasn’t any big meetings or anything like that, but we all kind of decided we had to put our egos aside [to achieve] our goals. As all the guys since then have bought in, and we’ve just been playing good basketball since.”

Indeed, the Cavaliers’ turnaround has been dramatic. Inconsistency marked Tennessee’s play over the rest of the regular season, but since that night in Knoxville, Virginia has lost only twice: at Duke on Jan. 13 and at Maryland on March 9. The `Hoos ran away with the ACC regular-season title and then won the ACC tournament for the first time since 1976.

“We’ve come a long way,” Williford said.

Virginia’s reward was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, which began Tuesday night with first-round games in Dayton, Ohio. For UVa, the tourney starts late Friday with a second-round game against No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina at PNC Arena. The game, which TBS will televise, is scheduled to start at approximately 9:25 p.m.

The winner will meet No. 8 seed Memphis or No. 9 seed George Washington in a third-round game Sunday at a time to be determined. In NCAA tournament history, a No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16, but the `Hoos are taking nothing for granted.

“The number next to the team’s name doesn’t really mean a whole lot, if anything, in this tournament,” senior guard Joe Harris said. “Everybody’s capable of beating one another, whether it be a 16 or a 1. It doesn’t matter. Everybody starts on the same playing field.”

Harris, who was named the ACC tournament’s MVP, came to UVa in June 2010 as part of a six-player recruiting class. Of that group, only Harris and Mitchell remain at the University. In the postgame celebration last weekend at the Greensboro Coliseum, Anderson made sure Mitchell and Harris were the first Cavaliers to hoist the ACC championship trophy.

“Those guys deserve it,” said Anderson, the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year. “Those guys stuck it out in this program. Even when times were hard, they didn’t transfer or leave Coach Bennett. They’ve been doing a great job just leading us where we need to be this year. More than just basketball players, they’re overall great people, and we couldn’t ask for two better leaders for this team this year.”

Mitchell and Harris were also starters in 2011-12, when UVa, a No. 10 seed in the West Region, had the misfortune of drawing Florida in the NCAA tournament’s second round. (Virginia was one of the 60 teams in the tourney with a first-round bye.) The Gators mauled the short-handed Cavaliers 71-45 in Omaha, Neb.

“I feel like this team has a lot more confidence heading into the tournament,” said the 6-8 Mitchell, UVa’s leading rebounder.

Moreover, Virginia’s second-round opponent isn’t as formidable as Florida was in 2012. Coastal Carolina (21-12) qualified for the NCAAs by winning the Big South Conference tournament.

This will be the Chanticleers’ second game against an ACC foe this season. In the first, they fell 69-40 at Clemson. Still, Coastal’s starting guards — Elijah Wilson (16.1 ppg), Warren Gillis (14.8) and Josh Cameron (14.1) — concern Bennett, and he has great respect for his counterpart.

“Coach Ellis has so much experience,” Bennett said.

Cliff Ellis, who’s in his seventh season at Coastal, has also been to the NCAA tourney as coach at South Alabama, Clemson and Auburn. Ellis coached at Clemson from 1984-94, posting a record of 177-128.

One of those wins, on Dec. 8, 1990, came at Littlejohn Coliseum against a Green Bay team whose coach was Dick Bennett. The elder Bennett’s best player was his son, Tony.

“They got us,” Tony Bennett said of the Tigers, who beat the Phoenix 75-68 that day.

For Ellis, this is his first appearance in the NCAA tournament as coach of a No. 16 seed, and he knows the history of 1-16 matchups.

“Is it a difficult task? Yes,” Ellis said. “Is it impossible? No.”

After their session at PNC Arena on Thursday, the Cavaliers held a short, spirited practice at NC State’s Reynolds Coliseum that evening before returning to their hotel.

The late start Friday will make for a long day, but the `Hoos are eager to continue the run that began after their long night in Knoxville.

When he saw some Tennessee players at PNC Arena on Thursday, Mitchell said, “I wanted to stop and say, `Thank you.’ ”

WAITING IN THE WINGS: Of the Cavaliers’ scholarship players, only one has not played this season: Devon Hall.

A 6-5 guard from Virginia Beach, Hall is redshirting. But he remains an integral part of the team and has distinguished himself in recent practices. Hall’s one-on-one training sessions with assistant coach Ron Sanchez are paying noticeable dividends.

“It’s funny, this morning I said to Tony that I thought the last month of this season, Devon’s getting a lot better,” Williford said Thursday.

“And to Coach Sanchez’s credit, he’s out there working him out. Whenever there’s down time, when we’re going light, Devon gets an extra workout. Or if he needs to get in the gym to get shots up before practice, Ron’s getting him in. He’s been unbelievable with that. I think the kid’s going to be pretty good. His body’s changed. There’s just more confidence in him, and you can see it as the season’s gone on.”

Hall said: “There’s obviously a difference from the start of practice [in October] to now, but it’s just been hard work and trying to stay consistent, just making plays and being aggressive.”

Motioning to his teammates, Hall noted that he’s trying not only “to get better myself, but also to get these guys better. Make it harder for them in practice so it’s easier during the game.”

Post-practice sessions with the coaching staff aren’t always a viable options for his teammates, Hall said, because they must make sure they’re rested for games.

“For me, it doesn’t really matter as much, because I’m not playing,” he said. “For me getting that extra work in is great, and it’s obviously paying off. I just want to keep working.”

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