By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The spring semester began this week at the University of Virginia, and London Perrantes had four classes Monday. At the end of the final one, a physics course for non-science majors, a fellow student stopped Perrantes and teammates Justin Anderson and Devon Hall and asked them to pose for a photo with him.
“It was kind of crazy,” Perrantes said later that day at John Paul Jones Arena.
When the first semester ended at UVa last month, the men’s basketball was 9-0 and ranked No. 6 nationally by The Associated Press. That was heady stuff for the Cavaliers, but the buzz about head coach Tony Bennett‘s team grew considerably louder over the holiday break.
After a wild weekend that shook up the AP’s top 10, Virginia is one of only two unbeaten teams in Division I, along with top-ranked Kentucky, and its No. 2 national ranking is the program’s highest since March 8, 1983.
With such success, the Wahoos know, comes a higher profile on Grounds and around town.
“We just gotta take it and run with it, I guess,” said Perrantes, a sophomore point guard from Los Angeles.
At 8 p.m. Tuesday, UVa (15-0, 3-0) hosts ACC rival Clemson (9-6, 1-2) at JPJ, where a near-capacity crowd is expected. By the time the `Hoos took the court for practice Monday afternoon, the latest polls were out, but there was no mention of the No. 2 ranking, and Bennett offered his players no extra praise.
“He knows better,” Perrantes said, smiling. “He has to keep us humble, and I think he’s doing that the best he can.”
On the ACC coaches’ teleconference early Monday afternoon, Bennett was asked about the national spotlight that’s now shining so brightly on his program.
“It’s really irrelevant to how we play, what we do,” he said.
The rankings and attention from the national media are more “for your fans and your followers,” said Bennett, who noted that he’d appeared on the Jim Rome radio show Monday morning.
“It just comes when you’ve won some games, and it’s there. I think the biggest thing is, whether the talk’s there or not — and I think it’s there, either positive or negative always, for anybody in college athletics at a high level – it’s how you process it, your young men, and what you do with it.
“But our job is to certainly be vigilant and say, `Hey, are we going to work?’ We always say, `Don’t believe the hype and all those things.’ ”
Perrantes said: “We know how we got here. We know we don’t need to change anything, really. We just need to keep playing the way that we’ve been playing and take it one game at a time.”
The Cavaliers were a big deal last season too, of course. The `Hoos swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney, and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen before falling to Michigan State at Madison Square Garden.
“I feel like that helps,” Perrantes said. “It doesn’t feel new. It feels like nothing’s really changed with us. And then when the younger guys came in, they’ve all been really humble with it, too. They fit right in. So the group that we have, I don’t think the spotlight will [affect] us.”
In one of its most impressive wins in a season marked by them, UVa rallied to beat then-No. 13 Notre Dame 62-56 on Saturday night in South Bend, Ind. Elsewhere in college hoops, though, a series of upsets rocked the top 10 over the weekend.
On Saturday, then-No. 5 Louisville lost at North Carolina and then-No. 10 Texas at Oklahoma State.
On Sunday afternoon, then-No. 2 — and previously unbeaten — Duke lost at NC State. Later that day, then-No. 4 Wisconsin lost at Rutgers and then-No. 7 Arizona at Oregon State.
“We were practicing during the Duke game,” Perrantes said. “Somebody texted me right when it happened, so when I got out of practice, that’s all my phone was about. It just goes to show that we gotta step up on the floor and play every game. Take nothing for granted. We’ll be ready for this next game [Tuesday night].”
Clemson is in the midst of a brutal stretch. The Tigers opened league play against UNC and then visited Louisville four days later. Clemson lost both of those games but bounced back to win 71-62 at Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Against Pitt, Clemson coach Brad Brownell said Monday, his team “made some shots, which we haven’t been able to do in some games. It really kept us energized throughout the 40 minutes.”
Brownell and Bennett are good friends with enormous respect for each other’s coaching. Bennett expects a battle at JPJ, where Virginia has won 19 straight games.
The Tigers are “physical,” Bennett told his players Monday. “Trust me.”
Virginia has won two in a row in this series since losing 59-44 to Clemson at Littlejohn Coliseum on Jan. 12, 2013. The Tigers made 17 of 33 field-goal attempts (51.5 percent) in that game. No ACC team since then has shot 50 percent from the floor against UVa, a stretch of 40 games.
Asked Monday about that 2013 win over the Cavaliers, Brownell laughed.
“That’s so far back I can’t even remember whether it was home or away or what it was,” he said. “I’m having a hard time remembering last week, and sometimes I don’t want to remember last week.
“Virginia’s just really good, and defensively, they’re as good as anybody we’ll play … They just don’t give you anything easy, and you’re going to have to make some perimeter shots when you play them.”
The Tigers won 23 games and advanced to the NIT semifinals last season, when their best player was 6-6 KJ McDaniels, now a promising rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Each of Clemson’s starters is averaging at least 8.3 points per game this season, led by 6-7, 215-pound Jaron Blossomgame. Among the 15 teams in the ACC, however, the Tigers rank 14th in field-goal percentage (42.0) and last in scoring (64.7 ppg).
“The hard part for our team this year, just compared to last year, is without KJ we don’t have a consistent guy we’ve always been able to go to,” Brownell said. “We don’t have a go-to guy.”
Bennett, by contrast, has several players in whom he’s confident late in games, among them Anderson, Brogdon, Gill and Perrantes.
Anderson, who was the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2013-14, averages 14.9 points per game and continues to shoot with remarkable accuracy. He’s hit 56.3 percent of his attempts from 3-point range and 53.6 percent overall.
“Certainly his improved ability to shoot the ball makes him extremely dangerous,” Brownell said. “Virginia does a great job of not relying on any one player, and so every time you play those guys in any season you’re always worried about three or four guys, because there’s three or four guys that can make big shots.
“London Perrantes doesn’t do a whole lot for 30 minutes, and then hits two big 3s in the last five minutes of games to beat you. Now with Justin improving his shooting, he becomes a whole different weapon. He’s certainly as athletic as probably anybody in the ACC. But now that he’s able to rise up at 22 feet and shoot it in, it extends your defense. It opens things up in the interior for some other players, and it just creates spacing problems for you defensively.”
A victory Tuesday night would push the Cavaliers’ record to 16-0 for the first time since 1980-81, when, with Ralph Sampson at center, they won their first 23 games. But never mind UVa’s lofty national ranking. Bennett expects little to come easily for his team against Clemson or any other ACC opponent.
“You can’t assume anything, and we know this,” Bennett said.