Feb. 6, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In November 2012 came the stunning news that Maryland would leave the Atlantic Coast Conference for the Big Ten. The ACC acted quickly, announcing two weeks later that Louisville would replace Maryland.
When power forward Anthony Gill transferred from South Carolina to Virginia after the 2011-12 season, he wasn’t expecting to face Louisville in conference play.
Neither was point guard London Perrantes when he committed to UVa in September 2012, early in his senior year at Crespi Carmelite High in Encino, Calif. Like Gill, though, Perrantes applauded the ACC’s decision to add Louisville and its storied basketball program.
“It just made it a tougher conference and made it even more exciting to come here and play,” Perrantes said this week.
Louisville officially joined the ACC last summer, a year after three other former Big East schools — Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pittsburgh — had done so.
“I thought it was great for the ACC,” Gill, now a redshirt junior, said of the league’s expansion. “I was so excited about being able to play against all these great teams. Because they are the top-tier teams, and we are the best conference, and adding those teams makes [the ACC] way better.”
Louisville replaced Maryland as one of the two teams, along with Virginia Tech, that UVa will play twice each season in men’s hoops. The first ACC game between the Cavaliers and the Cardinals comes Saturday at 7 p.m. at sold-out John Paul Jones Arena, and the ESPN-televised matchup could not be much more compelling.
Ninth-ranked Louisville (19-3, 7-2) enters on a four-game winning streak. Third-ranked Virginia, 20-1 overall, leads the ACC with an 8-1 record. Led by junior swingman Justin Anderson (13.9), five players are averaging at least 7.1 points per game for the Wahoos.
“It just seems like different guys at different times, doing different things, within themselves,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “I think that’s a real important aspect for a team to continue to play at a high level. You can’t just be one-dimensional. There has to be balance.”
The `Hoos and the Cards have not met in men’s hoops since 1990. Now that they’ll play each other at least twice each season, could this grow into a heated rivalry?
“Sure, why not?” Bennett said Wednesday at JPJ. “I think when a team has that kind of reputation and a Hall of Fame coach, whoever they play, it’s always a huge game. It’s like that [with] Duke and Carolina, the big-name universities, basketball programs. People can feel it when they come in, and certainly [the Louisville game at JPJ will] be one of those.”
For the `Hoos, this will be their third straight game against a nationally ranked opponent led by a Hall of Fame coach. First it was Duke and Mike Krzyzewski, then North Carolina and Roy Williams, and now Louisville and Rick Pitino.
“It’s a tough road,” Perrantes said, “but it’s definitely cool. I’m very blessed to be in this situation. I think we all are.”
With ESPN’s College GameDay crew on hand at JPJ, Virginia lost 69-63 to then-No. 4 Duke last Saturday night. Forty-eight hours later, in Chapel Hill, UVa bounced back to beat No. 12 North Carolina 75-64, also on ESPN.
Now come the Cards, who are in their 14th season under Pitino. He led them to the NCAA title in 2013, 17 years after he won the championship as Kentucky’s coach.
“We’re blessed to have this opportunity to be able to play against these great coaches and great teams, and I just think we need to go out here and take advantage of what we have in front of us,” Gill said.
“Don’t take anything for granted. We build our program on that, thankfulness, and we’re really thankful for being able to have these games on TV, and have games against these great teams, and being able to play against the great coaches that we do.”
Programs such as Louisville are accustomed to the glare of the national spotlight. For Virginia, which is in its sixth season under Bennett, this is heady stuff. Still, the experience the Cavaliers gained in 2013-14, when they swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles after struggling in non-conference play, has benefited them this season.
“We had success in the earlier part of the season — nothing compared to what we are doing now — but we had success, and then we really got humbled,” Gill said, referring to a stretch in which Virginia lost three times in five games, the last a 35-point defeat at Tennessee.
“And we understand that we can’t play like that. In order for us to be good, everybody has to be bought in, everybody has to be under the same umbrella of thought, and we can’t go outside that umbrella. Because once we do, we’ll start getting beat. So I think we understand where we are and where we need to be.”
The Cards average 73.1 points per game and will look to run whenever possible. The Cavaliers average 68.3 points and have been remarkably efficient on offense, in part because they’re rarely careless with the ball.
Virginia averages only 8.9 turnovers per game, by far the fewest of any of the ACC’s 15 teams. Still, UVa’s ballhandlers figure to be tested Saturday night by Louisville, which uses several fullcourt presses.
The Cardinals have forced 352 turnovers this season, the most of any ACC team.
“It’s as good of a defensive team as I’ve seen in quite a while,” Bennett said.
Virginia has already faced one opponent that likes to press from start to finish: VCU. At the Siegel Center in Richmond, the Cavaliers turned the ball over 16 times Dec. 6 but still managed to defeat the Rams 74-57.
“I think it’ll help [against Louisville],” Perrantes said. “Every game has helped us so far. We get some learning experiences from every game, and I think Louisville’s pressure is definitely going to resemble VCU’s pressure.”
Bennett said: “I think you always go back to teams that you’ve played against that do similar things. Watching Louisville, they’re exceptional defensively. Their scheme is unique. They mix it up. It’s impressive. They win with their defense a lot, and then they have, certainly, some playmakers and do things offensively. But they challenge you to take care of the ball when they’re pressing, and then when they’re not, going against their halfcourt, man-to-man, zone, matchup, they do a lot of different things.”
Pitino has coached many teams that were more dangerous offensively than this one, especially from 3-point range. Even so, Louisville guards Terry Rozier (18.5 ppg) and 5-10 Chris Jones (13.7) worry Bennett. They remind him of such standout guards as UNC’s Marcus Paige and Duke’s Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones.
“They can shoot the 3, they can beat you off the dribble, they have pullups, and they’re real explosive. They put great pressure on you,” Bennett said.
“This will be a challenge of the highest order. I talked about how good their defense is, but these two guards are very aggressive, and they can go on runs … Hopefully our guys will embrace that challenge, because they’ll have to be ready. Because if you’re a little off, they’re in there, and then they got some guys coming on the glass that are pretty accomplished.”
The most accomplished of those Cards, of course, is forward Montrezl Harrell, a 6-8, 240-pound junior who as a schoolboy attended a summer camp at Virginia. Harrell, an extraordinary athlete, is averaging 15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds and shooting 57.3 percent from the floor.
In the summer of 2013, Harrell played on the USA Basketball team that won the gold medal at FIBA’s U19 world championships in Prague, Czech Republic, as did Mike Tobey, now a junior center. Bennett was one of head coach Billy Donovan’s assistants on that team.
“The one thing I remember about Montrezl is when the lights turn on, he is one of the fiercest competitors that I’ve been around,” Bennett said. “You can see it. I can picture he and Justin locking horns. They’re both so passionate and so charismatic that way.
“He is a warrior between the lines. He’s motivated by that. The bigger the game, the bigger the setting, he seems to thrive on that. That’s what impressed me about him. Most guys are competitive at this level, but he’s got another gear in terms of that, his activity, his length, his ability to get his shot if he misses it. His ability to change shots, running the floor, blocking shots, there’s a lot of aspects to him.”
Louisville is coming off a 63-55 road win over Miami, a game in which Harrell totaled 18 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots. And he’s only one of the Cards’ weapons. The challenge facing the Cavaliers is significant, Perrantes acknowledged, but their approach won’t vary as they prepare for Louisville.
“You gotta look at it as just another game,” Perrantes said.
The rematch will be March 7 at Louisville, in the regular-season finale for both teams.