By Jeff White (email@example.com)
Harris and Mitchell were seniors on the UVa men’s basketball team last season, and they ended their college careers with a 4-0 record against Virginia Tech at Cassell Coliseum.
If the Cavaliers win Sunday in Blacksburg, Atkins, a senior from Clinton, Md., will equal their feat.
“I hope that I’m blessed enough to be able to do the same thing,” Atkins said after practice Friday at John Paul Jones Arena. “I know it’s going to be a big game. It’s going to be a very big game for V-Tech. Even though they’re at the bottom of the ACC right now, they’re not really worried about that. They want to come out and they want to beat us Sunday.”
At 1 p.m., second-ranked UVa meets Virginia Tech at sold-out Cassell Coliseum in a game the ACC Network will televise. Virginia has won five straight over Tech and seven of the past eight meetings.
The Wahoos, 18-0 overall, lead the ACC with a 6-0 record in conference play, and the Hokies (8-10, 0-5) are tied for 13th in the 15-team league. But every team the `Hoos have faced this season has been gunning for an upset, and that will be the case again Sunday.
“You go on the road in the ACC, you gotta be ready,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said.
Atkins said: “We can’t take anyone lightly. Because it’s our rivalry, it’s going to be more of a tough game, so we have to come out and be prepared.”
The Hokies, in their first season under former Marquette coach Buzz Williams, have little experience and less height. Still, the Cavaliers remain wary. UVa’s coaches are familiar with, and have great respect for, Williams. Virginia scrimmaged Williams’ Marquette teams three times: once in Charlottesville and twice in Milwaukee, Wis.
“I think the one thing that is very consistent with Buzz is that he gets his teams to play very, very hard,” said UVa assistant coach Ron Sanchez, who prepared the scouting report on Virginia Tech.
“He’s got guys that are defending hard, running hard on offense, and being physical. They are doing everything that he wants them to do from an energy and effort standpoint. They’ve been pretty competitive for a large part of the games.”
The Hokies’ most recent game was an exception. Against No. 8 Notre Dame, Virginia Tech lost 85-60 at Cassell Coliseum on Thursday night.
Tech started only one player taller than 6-5 against the Fighting Irish — 6-8 Shane Henry, a junior-college transfer — and was outrebounded 43-29. With such post players as the 6-8 Atkins, 7-0 junior Mike Tobey and 6-8 redshirt junior Anthony Gill, the Cavaliers will enjoy a significant size advantage Sunday, but their approach won’t change dramatically.
“Let the game come to us,” said Atkins, who’s averaging 6.9 points and 6.5 rebounds. “Play as hard as hard as we can, leave everything out on the court, and hopefully things fall into place.”
Atkins knows the Cavaliers will receive a hostile reception at Cassell Coliseum, which he rates among the ACC’s loudest venues. The 9,847-seat arena also has a design that’s not replicated elsewhere in the league.
“It’s like Hogwarts,” Atkins said with a smile, tossing out a Harry Potter reference. “Deep and dark.”
Virginia, which leads the nation in scoring defense (49.3 ppg), is coming off a historic performance. The Cavaliers humbled Georgia Tech 57-28 on Thursday night at JPJ. That’s the fewest points ever allowed in a regular-season ACC game.
“I thought we played a very good defensive game,” redshirt junior guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “But we pride ourselves on defense. I think it’s about learning from tonight, learning from what breakdowns we did have on the defensive end and improving on it for the next game.”
Virginia Tech will try to spread the Cavaliers out and beat them with 3-pointers. The Hokies have attempted 322 shots from beyond the arc this season — UVa, by comparison, has attempted 258 — and rank third among ACC teams in 3-point field-goal percentage (39.1).
“They shoot the ball very, very well from the perimeter,” Sanchez said.
Tech’s best shooter, freshman guard Justin Bibbs, has missed the past two games with concussion symptoms, and his status for Sunday is uncertain.
With Bibbs in the lineup, the Hokies have “four guys on the floor that can all catch and shoot, and they’re getting great looks,” Sanchez said. “That is an advantage to them on the offensive end. Defensively, they’re playing some zone, which gives them a chance to be competitive and plug up the lane. So I think Buzz is doing everything you’re supposed to do with his roster right now.”
Williams was asked Thursday night about Bennett — they worked together at a USA Basketball training camp in 2013 — and the Cavaliers, who are off to their best start since 1980-81.
“I completely understand what they do, and that will be very much a challenge for us,” Williams said. “Everyone talks about the Pack-Line [defense], and they should. They are as good as there is defensively. But they’re also really good offensively, and so I think that’s why they’re undefeated. They’re not just playing on one side of the ball. They’re playing both.”
The Cavaliers lead the ACC in scoring margin — plus-19.9 points — and rank third in field-goal percentage (48.0). They’re second in 3-point field-goal percentage (39.9) and have five players averaging at least 6.9 points, led by junior swingman Justin Anderson (14.1).
“We know that when our defense is good, our offense starts to click,” Anderson said Thursday night.
In 2013-14, Virginia swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles and advanced to the NCAA tourney’s Sweet Sixteen. Except for Harris and Mitchell, the key players from that team returned this season, and the Cavaliers’ experience is one of their strengths. Even so, two freshmen have cracked the rotation this season: 6-5 swingman Marial Shayok and 6-7 forward Isaiah Wilkins.
Shayok is shooting 45.2 percent from 3-point range, second only to Anderson (52.6) among Cavaliers who have attempted more than two treys. (Wilkins is 2 for 2.)
Wilkins’ role has grown in recent games, and his teammates and coaches rave about his energy.
“Seems like when he’s out there, positive things are happening,” Bennett said. “He just goes, goes, goes.”
Shayok didn’t always plan to be a Cavalier. Early in his senior year at Blair Academy in New Jersey, he chose Marquette over Virginia. But when Williams left for Virginia Tech after the 2013-14 season, Marquette released Shayok from his letter of intent, and he ended up at UVa.
Seeing Williams on Sunday won’t be awkward for him, Shayok said Thursday night, “because I didn’t play for him or practice with him. I just committed there.”
After its trip to Blacksburg, UVa won’t play again until next Saturday night, when No. 5 Duke visits JPJ for a much-anticipated showdown ESPN will broadcast.
Sunday’s game won’t attract that kind of national attention, but Bennett prepared his players for the Hokies as hard as he will for the Blue Devils.
“I think that’s the approach of a coach who knows that we’re dealing with teenagers and guys that can be manipulated by what the media says,” Sanchez said.
“In order to get them to buy into what you’re doing, you have to approach it as if every opponent is faceless, every game is recordless. You gotta worry about doing what you do to the best of your ability, whether you’re home or on the road, or you’re playing the best team in the conference or a team that doesn’t have a W in the conference. It really doesn’t matter. If you approach games that way, I think your formula can travel.”