By Jeff White (email@example.com)
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — In 2012-13 and again last season, Maryland fans delighted in jeering UVa swingman Justin Anderson every time he touched the basketball at the Comcast Center.
And so when he saw the ACC/Big Ten Challenge pairings put together by ESPN and the two conferences, his “initial reaction was, `Ah, it’s a setup. They want me to get booed again,'” Anderson said Tuesday with a smile. “But it’s a good opportunity for us against a team that we still kind of view as a conference opponent. Great rivalry.”
At 9:15 p.m. Wednesday, in a Challenge game that ESPN2 will televise, UVa (7-0) meets Big Ten newcomer Maryland (7-0) at the Terrapins’ 17,950-seat arena, now called the Xfinity Center. In the latest Associated Press poll, the Wahoos are No. 7 and the Terps are No. 21.
“I think the environment’s going to be electric,” Anderson said, “and we have to make sure we go in there as a band of brothers and stay together and try to get a tough one on the road.”
As a standout at Montrose Christian in Rockville, Md., Anderson committed to Maryland before changing his mind and signing with UVa. Maryland fans have yet to forgive him and probably never will, but that’s fine with Anderson, a 6-6 junior who leads defending ACC champion Virginia in scoring (15.0 ppg).
“Whatever happens, happens,” he said. “I don’t take it personally. I just had to make a good decision for me and my basketball career. That’s all it is.”
As a sophomore, Anderson was named the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year and helped UVa win 30 games and advance to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen. This season, the Wahoos are off to their best start since 2003-04, but a serious challenge awaits them Wednesday night.
The Terps are expected to be without injured seniors Dez Wells and Evan Smotrycz in this Challenge game, but they remain dangerous — in part because of veterans such as 6-9 junior Jake Layman (14.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg), but also because of a talented freshman class led by Melo Trimble.
A 6-3 point guard from nearby Upper Marlboro, Trimble scored 31 points in a Nov. 24 win over Arizona State and averages a team-high 16.6 points. His classmates are 6-7 Jared Nickens, 6-4 Dion Wiley and 7-1 Michal Cekovsky, each of whom averages at least 19 minutes per game.
“Those four guys are pretty skilled and can score,” said UVa assistant coach Jason Williford, who prepared the scouting report on Maryland.
“From an offensive standpoint I think they’re pretty good. We gotta just play our defensive game. In the past they’ve given us problems, because they can stretch the floor with guys that can shoot it, especially those post guys.
“That’s something we’re going to have to be able to handle, and I think it’ll be a great test. It’s just our system against what they do.”
Anderson said: “They’re going to come at us with a certain level of aggressiveness to show how capable they are, and we’re going to do the same to them.”
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said he’s seen improved chemistry from the Terps this season, especially in the Arizona State game.
“I was really impressed with how they played together, and of course how good the young guys are,” Bennett said. “But I thought there was a cohesiveness, and I thought they looked improved in that game with the new personnel. They’re really playing together.”
Less than nine months have passed since UVa and Maryland met as ACC rivals in the 2013-14 regular-season finale at the Comcast Center. Like Anderson, Bennett was surprised by the Cavaliers’ draw in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. As strange as it may be to think of Virginia vs. Maryland as ACC vs. Big Ten, that’s the new reality.
“So we’ll have to defend our league,” Bennett said.
Virginia, coincidentally, is coming off a game against the Big Ten’s other new member, Rutgers. Late Saturday night, in the Brooklyn Nets’ arena, the `Hoos shut down the Scarlet Knights 45-26 to win the Barclays Center Classic.
The 26 points were the fewest allowed by UVa in the shot-clock era (since 1986).
“I think we all feel really good about knowing that we’re a defensive-minded team,” Anderson said, “and we actually showed that for the first time this year, that our defense is what stands, no matter what’s happening on the offensive end. When we have that confidence, I think this team has our priorities straight. We understand that defense comes first, and that’s what we hang our hat on.”
Opponents are averaging only 43.6 points and shooting 30.1 percent from the floor against UVa this season.
“I think our guys have worked hard,” Bennett said. “I challenged them. The effort has to be there to be as close to great defensively as we can be, and then on the offensive end we’ve got to be as solid as we can.”
The defense never rests, Bennett constantly tells his players, and “I think our guys are really working to become that kind of team as we progress,” he said. “Certainly we’ll go against different kinds of offensive teams, and that’ll always challenge you.”
On offense, the Cavaliers weren’t as consistent in Brooklyn. In a 64-56 win over La Salle late Friday night, Virginia shot 47.8 percent from the floor. Twenty-four hours later, however, the `Hoos made only 18 of 55 attempts (32.7 percent) against Rutgers, including a 2-for-16 effort from beyond the 3-point arc.
“You always look as a coach and say, `All right, were we getting quality looks?’ ” Bennett said. “You kind of got to go through a checklist … and I think we got pretty good looks in that game. I thought we adjusted some things in the second half, tried to say, OK, well maybe we gotta go inside more, if there’s opportunities to push the ball. So we tried to find other ways. But I thought they were pretty good quality looks, and there was patience there.”
Anderson and 6-8 redshirt junior Anthony Gill led the Cavaliers with 13 points apiece against the Scarlet Knights. For the season, Anderson is shooting 54.3 percent from the floor, 59.3 percent from 3-point range and 76.5 percent from the line.
“I think because he’s more mature as a player,” Bennett said, “there’s more consistency there, and as long as he keeps taking the good shots and being aggressive where he’s supposed to be and being sound and patient where he is, I think he’s very important for us and has given us a good lift.”
In his first game in College Park as a Cavalier, Anderson scored 17 points in an 80-69 victory on Feb. 10, 2013, much to the dismay of Maryland fans. They went home happier last spring, after the Terps edged Anderson and the Cavaliers 75-69 in overtime March 9.
Expect the red-clad fans to be in full voice Wednesday night. The Terps are 7-0 for the first time in eight years.
“We know it’ll be a charged environment,” Bennett said.
Williford said: “I envision that place rocking.”
The experience will pay dividends for the `Hoos, Williford believes. Teams with championship aspirations must learn to overcome adversity.
“As a former [UVa] player, I’m glad we got `em, because that atmosphere is great,” Williford said. “The students will be all over us. It’ll be good for our guys. You always liked going up to Maryland as part of that rivalry, and this will be no different.”