Jan. 3, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

MIAMI — The weather figures to be dramatically different next weekend in South Bend, Ind., where freezing temperatures are forecast, and members of the UVa men’s basketball team will have to bundle up when they venture outdoors.

In this city, several players wore shorts and T-shirts as they walked around in the tropical air Friday night. As pleasant as their surroundings may be, however, the Cavaliers are not here on vacation. The next phase of their season begins Saturday evening in nearby Coral Gables.

At 5:30, in a game ESPN2 will televise, third-ranked Virginia (12-0) meets Miami (10-3) in the ACC opener for both teams.

“We got a grind coming up,” head coach Tony Bennett said Tuesday in Charlottesville, “and we’re just looking forward to it.”

Bennett, who’s in his sixth season at Virginia, was pleased with his team’s play in non-conference games. “How could I not be?” he said Friday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.

Not only are the Cavaliers undefeated, they’ve won by fewer than 11 points only once, in a 64-56 victory over La Salle in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“You look back, and how could you be unhappy?” Bennett said. “But we also realize there were stretches we were a little shaky, and that’s always a valuable lesson. We always say that if you can learn your lessons and still be victorious, that can be a positive.”

Justin Anderson (15.0 ppg) leads Virginia in scoring, and the 6-6 junior is shooting 60.9 percent from 3-point range.

“You’re proud of what you’ve done and accomplished so far, in non-conference play,” Anderson said, “but at the same time we understand that at this point that means nothing as far as our new season in the ACC. Everybody starts 0-0. So this is the time when you have to refocus. Everybody has a new mindset and wants to come in and compete. So we just gotta make sure we’re ready and on edge.”

In 2013-14, the non-conference portion of the Cavaliers’ schedule was a bumpier ride. Virginia lost four games before starting ACC play. Most notable was a late-December debacle at Tennessee, where UVa lost 87-52.

Those defeats did not derail the Wahoos. The `Hoos swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles and then won two games in the NCAA tourney before losing in the Sweet Sixteen. And so the Cavaliers know that non-conference dominance is no guarantee of ACC success.

“It could go both ways,” Anderson said. “You have to make sure you stay humble and just enjoy the process and just try to go out and execute, take it one step at a time, even though we went undefeated [in non-conference play this season].

“Last year, we had a decent [non-conference performance] and then finished almost perfect in the ACC. It could go backwards this year, where we play really well in non-conference and then struggle in the ACC. That’s not what we expect, but you never know, so you just want to make sure you come to play every single game.”

Miami and UVa met once last season. Virginia led by seven at halftime before pulling away in the second half. Guards Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes scored 15 points apiece in the Cavaliers’ 65-40 rout of the Hurricanes at JPJ.

From his 2013-14 team, Bennett lost starters Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, but such key players as Anderson, Brogdon, Perrantes, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Darion Atkins and Evan Nolte returned.

Miami, by contrast, has undergone a major makeover. Head coach Jim Larranaga’s best players are 6-5 guard Sheldon McClellan and 5-11 Angel Rodriguez each of whom sat out last season after transferring to Miami from Texas and Kansas State, respectively.

“They certainly have played some good stretches of ball,” Bennett said of the `Canes. “They lost to my alma mater” — Green Bay — “and they lost a couple of other hard ones, but certainly they’re improved from last year, just watching them, and those two transfers, they have the potential to be very good.”

Miami, which won the ACC title in 2012-13, has four players averaging at least 9.3 points per game: McClellan (15.7), Rodriguez (13.6), sophomore guard Manu Lecomte (10.2) and redshirt freshman guard Deandre Burnett (9.3).

Balance is Virginia’s hallmark, too. In Anderson, the 6-5 Brogdon (13.3 ppg) and the 6-8 Gill (13.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg), UVa has three All-ACC candidates, and the 7-0 Tobey, though inconsistent, is averaging 8.4 points and 7.0 rebounds.

Moreover, the 6-2 Perrantes, in his second season as the Cavaliers’ point guard, has 46 assists and only 15 turnovers.

“I think it’s something that’s becoming a part of our program,” Anderson said, “because we have guys that can do different things on offense and fill it up in many different ways. And we kind of had the same situation last year.”

The Cavaliers opened ACC play last season with a win over Florida State in Tallahassee, where they had lost their previous 10 games. Virginia has struggled in this part of the Sunshine State, too. The `Hoos are 0-6 in Coral Gables, and the `Canes will be amped to extend that streak Saturday night at the BankUnited Center.

“Do you understand what you’re going in to?” Bennett asked his players during practice Friday.

In the next two months, the Cavaliers will face No. 2 Duke, No. 5 Louisville, No. 14 Notre Dame and No. 19 North Carolina, and the rest of the league will be looking to take down Bennett’s team, too.

Such is life in an elite conference.

“You certainly gotta embrace that,” Bennett said. “Every game is so important. Again, what you did last game, or [in non-conference play], isn’t significant. It’s what’s right in front of you.”

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