By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Seniors who grew up on opposite sides of the country — Harris in Chelan, Wash., Mitchell in Charlotte — they’ve been at the heart of Bennett’s rebuilding project at UVa. And now they’ve reached a critical stage of their college careers. They could play as many as five more games as Cavaliers — or as few as one.
“You can’t let it freeze you up, thinking this could be my last game,” Mitchell said Saturday afternoon at PNC Arena. “So you just got to play as free as possible and know that if you lay it on the line, give it everything you have, what happens, happens.”
Harris said: “All we can really worry about is going out and playing as hard as possible, and the results and all that will take care of itself.”
In Greensboro last weekend, Bennett urged his team to play with “a reckless abandon,” Mitchell said, and the Wahoos did just that, winning three games in three days to capture the ACC tournament for the first time since 1976.
Sunday could bring another breakthrough for the `Hoos. At approximately 8:40 p.m., UVa (29-6), the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament’s East Region, meets No. 8 seed Memphis (24-9) in a third-round game at PNC Arena. A win would send Virginia to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1995.
The game figures to offer a contrast in styles. The Tigers, behind senior guards Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson, look to run at every opportunity, and they’re averaging 77.4 points a game.
The third-ranked Cavaliers, who swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles, prefer a more controlled tempo. They’re averaging 66.1 points and allowing only 55.4 per game, the fewest in Division I.
Sunday night’s game will be “a battle of wills to see which style will play out and become victorious in the end, I guess,” Harris said. “It’s about us getting to our tempo and our pace and playing the game we want to play.”
Memphis is in its fifth season under Josh Pastner, whose record is 130-43, with four trips to the NCAA tournament. Pastner, a former Arizona player, has continued the system with which his predecessor at Memphis, John Calipari, had so much success.
Asked Saturday if he enjoys facing teams whose philosophies contrast with his, Bennett said it “certainly is a great challenge. I’ll tell you how enjoyable it is after game. Any time you play a team that has the ability to score the points in transition, and the way they score in the paint and their quickness, it tests what you try to take away on a game-by-game basis. And so you got to be as ready for it as you can. You know what you have to do. Can you execute it?”
Virginia plays the Pack-Line defense devised by Bennett’s father, Dick, who had a legendary coaching career before retiring. Among the Cavaliers’ principles — a “non-negotiable,” as Bennett likes to say — is a commitment to transition defense. Opponents have averaged only 3.3 fast-break points per game against UVa this season.
“It’s what we preach from Day One,” said Mitchell, a 6-8 post player who leads the Cavaliers in rebounding, “and we understand that if we are able to get a set defense every time down the court, then we’re tough.”
After every UVa shot, said Harris, a 6-6 guard, three players race back on defense. Only two Cavaliers pursue offensive rebounds.
Clearly, something has to give Sunday night. The Tigers want “a track meet,” according to Jackson, who leads the team in assists, with 151.
“We just got to play Memphis basketball,” Jackson said. “We’re not a slow-down team. Everybody knows that. So we’ve just got to do the things to get us easy transition points and just make it hard for them.”
Jackson has started 133 games during his college career. His counterpart at UVa, freshman London Perrantes, has played in only 35 college games. But almost from his Virginia debut, Perrantes has exhibited exceptional poise.
He has more than three times as any assists (134) as turnovers (38), and he’s 21 for 32 from 3-point range in his past nine games. His older teammates aren’t concerned about Perrantes’ matchup with Jackson.
“He’s shown he can play on the big stage in substantial circumstances,” said guard Malcolm Brogdon, a redshirt sophomore leads Virginia in scoring (12.7 ppg).
Perrantes said: “You just gotta go out there and play. I got almost a year under my belt. I feel like that’s enough to me. I feel like I’m playing my best as of late, playing real comfortable, but it’s a team thing.”
The Tigers have considerably more experience in the NCAA tournament than does Virginia, “but I feel like if we play our game we’ll be fine,” Perrantes said, “regardless of how much experience we have.”
Memphis advanced to the third round with a 71-66 victory over No. 9 seed George Washington. UVa’s opponent Friday night was No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina. The Cavaliers eventually vanquished the Chanticleers, 70-59, but the game was closer than many expected.
“I felt like we were nervous,” Mitchell said Saturday, “but it’s good to get back on the floor and shake some of the rust off.”
The UVa-Memphis winner will meet No. 4 seed Michigan State in the East Region semifinals Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York City.