Jan. 31, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Sunrise revealed hundreds of UVa men’s basketball fans, many of them Hoo Crew members, in a line that snaked down Massie Road and wrapped onto Emmet Street.

Inside John Paul Jones Arena, the party officially started at 9 a.m., when those supporters, and the thousands more who followed them, began rushing through the doors to take part in ESPN’s College GameDay show.

“It’s among the best we’ve ever had,” ESPN announcer Rece Davis said of the massive turnout.

At 9:40, freshman center Jack Salt walked out of the home locker room, ventured into a tunnel that led to the court, and surveyed the madness around him: orange-clad fans, many of them holding signs, filling most of the lower bowl.

“This is ridiculous,” Salt said.

At 11:20, former UVa great Ralph Sampson walked out to a standing ovation and made his way around the lower level, exchanging high-fives with students.

At 11:30, head coach Tony Bennett strode onto the court, microphone in hand, and applause threatened to shake the building.

“When you come to build a program, you hope one day that will be there this enthusiasm,” Bennett told the crowd of 5,100. “This is a gift. Thank for you coming, and enjoy the show.”

College GameDay, of course, is only the preliminary. The main event is the showdown between No. 2 Virginia (19-0, 7-0) and No. 4 Duke (17-3, 4-3), ACC rivals that will meet at 7 p.m. Saturday before a sellout crowd at 14,593-seat JPJ.

“Two teams that are potentially Final Four teams,” said NC State coach Mark Gottfried, whose team lost to Virginia at JPJ on Jan. 7 and then upset Duke four nights later in Raleigh, N.C. “Both capable maybe of winning the national championship.”

This will mark the first time since Feb. 3, 1982, when No. 3 UVa defeated No. 2 North Carolina 74-58 at University Hall, that top-5 teams have met in Charlottesville.

Amid the hype and hoopla that surround Saturday night’s game, Bennett has done everything possible to keep his players focused on basketball. He’s known for staying on an even keel, and that hasn’t changed this week.

“You know us,” associate head coach Ritchie McKay said Thursday. “Coach Bennett kind of sets the atmosphere from Day One. We’re just prepping for the next game. This for us is just another opportunity to play a quality opponent and test ourselves. Sure, we all know it’s Duke and it’s GameDay. We’re aware of it, but certainly there’s a lot of opportunities left for us to get better and improve as a collective unit, and I think that’s what Saturday represents.”

This is the first time UVa has hosted College Game Day.

“It shows that all the work that we’re putting in is [paying off], and the fans get to go out and do something that hasn’t been here before,” sophomore point guard London Perrantes said. “It’s big for them. I think for us it’s just another game. I don’t think anybody’s worried about the College GameDay and stuff like that. We’re just worried about going out and playing.”

The Wahoos haven’t played since Sunday, when they rallied to beat Virginia Tech 50-47 at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg.

“Experience won out with the Virginia-Virginia Tech game, even though Virginia Tech played great,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.

Duke is less rested. Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils squandered a 10-point lead in the second half Wednesday night and lost 77-73 at No. 8 Notre Dame.

“Honestly, whether they’d beaten Notre Dame or they didn’t, we are going to expect the best Duke team of the season,” McKay said, “just because of the tradition that their program has, the success their coaching staff has had and who they are as players. I don’t think that matters as much to us as how are we playing, what’s our mindset like? For us, we want to be up to the challenge.”

This is not the same Duke team, however, that played in South Bend, Ind. On Thursday, Krzyzewski dismissed junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon for failing to meet the team’s standards. Sulamain, a key reserve, was averaging 7.5 points and shooting 40.4 percent from beyond the arc.

“I’m not sure it changes our preparation,” McKay said Friday. “It’s one less guy on the scouting report to know for our players, but listen, it’s Coach Krzyzewski and Duke University. They’re going to have a big punch. They’re a quality opponent. We’re trying to continue to stay focused on us, and how we have to prepare to win. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing relative to the outcome of the game on Saturday. I know Rasheed Sulaimon was a good player, but sometimes if good players aren’t on the same page with the rest of the organization, then it can be more of a deterrent.”

The Cavaliers are by far the more experienced team in this matchup. Duke’s starters include freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow. Okafor, however, is no ordinary freshman. A 6-11, 270-pound center, he averages 18.7 points and 9.4 rebounds.

“Jahlil Okafor is a beast, so it’s going to be big for our bigs to play well defensively,” Perrantes said. “Offensively, too, just getting him tired and maybe picking up some early fouls.

“But as much as we’re talking about him, I feel like they’re talking about our bigs too. Our bigs are definitely skilled too, so he’s going to have his hands full on both ends of the floor, and hopefully it’ll tire him out and it’ll help us win this game.”

Virginia’s post players include 6-8 senior Darion Atkins, 6-8 redshirt junior Anthony Gill and 7-0 junior Mike Tobey. It’s important, McKay acknowledged, that they avoid foul trouble against Okafor.

“Easier said than done, because he puts you in a tough spot,” McKay said. “He’s so effective offensively. He’s as good a player as I’ve seen in six years at Virginia, and there’s a reason why he’ll be the No. 1 draft pick. He’s that good. But our defense is team defense.”

This is the first meeting between these teams at JPJ since Feb. 28, 2013, when Joe Harris scored 36 points to lead the `Hoos to a 73-68 upset of the No. 3 Devils.

The Cavaliers and the Blue Devils met twice last season. At Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke prevailed 69-65 on Jan. 13, 2014. In the ACC tournament final, Virginia avenged that defeat, winning 72-63 at the Greensboro Coliseum.

“Playing in Cameron, I felt like I was in complete awe, just being there and playing against Duke,” Perrantes recalled Thursday. “But I feel like the ACC championship definitely helped me get over the hump of, `It’s Duke.’ It’ll always be exciting [to play Duke], but I’m excited for every game, regardless of who it is. It just definitely puts a little bit more on there.”

Krzyzewski won his 1,000th game as a head coach last weekend at Madison Square Garden, where Duke defeated St. John’s.

`That is remarkable,” Bennett said of Coach K’s feat. “Anytime you get a chance to coach against someone that has those kinds of accomplishments, it’s certainly special. We know how good they are, we know how good the league is, so we’re just trying to prepare the right way.”

For Bennett, that means staying “faithful to the stuff that has helped develop your program and your young men,” he said. “The excitement of some of the things that happened last year, and obviously [the Cavaliers are] off to a real good start this year, and College GameDay, that stuff’s fine. It just can’t distract you.”

In the waning moments of the show, the crowd erupted yet again, this time after second-year UVa student Tyler Lewis won $18,000 by making a halfcourt shot. When College GameDay went off the air at noon Saturday, fans headed for the exits, buzzing about the spectacle.

Most will return Saturday night, and they hope to see the `Hoos stretch their winning streak at JPJ to 22 games.

“Our fans, they give us a lot of energy, especially on the defensive end,” Perrantes said. “When we get a shot-clock violation or something like that, the place erupts. They know what to do, and they know to be loud all the time, and it definitely gives us a lot of energy. I feel like it’s definitely a big home-court advantage, and if it comes down to it, I feel like that’ll put us over the top.”

Virginia leads the nation in scoring defense, having allowed only 49.2 points per game, and fans at JPJ like nothing better than to see opponents struggle at the offensive end.

“They know that we play defense,” Perrantes said. “They know that’s what we thrive on, what we hang our hats on. They know it, so they’re going to get really loud.”

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