'Hoos Look to Start Homestand on Winning Note
Feb. 13, 2015
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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Not since December has the UVa men’s basketball team, which enjoys a formidable home-court advantage, played consecutive games at John Paul Jones Arena.
That’s about to change. The Cavaliers’ next three games are at JPJ, starting Saturday against Wake Forest.
In a sold-out game the ACC Network will televise, second-ranked UVa (22-1, 10-1) hosts Wake (12-13, 4-8) at 2:30 p.m.
Two nights later, at 7 o’clock, Virginia entertains Pittsburgh (16-9, 5-6). The homestand concludes Feb. 22 with a 6:30 p.m. game against Florida State (13-12, 5-7).
Coming off a recent stretch that included two weekday games on Tobacco Road — the first a 75-64 win at North Carolina, the second a 51-47 victory at NC State — the Cavaliers are happy to be home for a while.
“Most definitely,” redshirt junior forward Anthony Gill said after practice Friday at JPJ. “Not having to travel, being able to play in front of your home fans, it’s great for everybody. And for the freshmen to see these high-level games at home, it’s great for them to get that kind of experience.”
The Wahoos are 11-1 at home this season, and only two of those wins were by fewer than 10 points. Among the opponents that have been blown out at JPJ are George Washington (59-42), Harvard (76-27), Clemson (65-42) and Georgia Tech (57-28).
Away from JPJ, the Cavaliers haven’t been as dominant, but their record in road and neutral games is unblemished.
“Our game doesn’t change, regardless of where it goes,” said Gill, who’s averaging 10.9 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds. “It’s the same system and the same players. We understand what we have to go out there and do, and we do it, no matter where we are.”
That its next three games are at home should help Virginia, associate head coach Ritchie McKay acknowledged Friday. “But they’re all important, especially when you’re in a conference championship race,” he said.
“We feel like the next game is, and needs to be, our focus, and we’re playing a very improved Wake Forest group. They improve on a nightly basis.”
Wake is in its first season under head coach Danny Manning, who had a legendary playing career at Kansas in the `80s. The Demon Deacons have won three of their past four games, the most recent a 72-70 victory over Miami on Wednesday night in Winston-Salem, N.C.
McKay prepared the scouting report on the Deacons, and the players who impress him include Devin Thomas, a 6-9, 255-pound junior. Thomas, who’s averaging 12.7 points, ranks second among ACC players in rebounding (9.6 per game) and leads Wake in blocked shots (24).
“I think Devin Thomas’ improvement, his effort, his ability to be continuous and dogmatic in catching the ball in his wheelhouse, or getting into his wheelhouse, is outstanding,” McKay said. “In a lot of ways, he’s as difficult an equation to solve as [Duke star] Jahlil Okafor.”
With post players such as the 6-8 Gill, 6-8 senior Darion Atkins, 7-0 junior Mike Tobey and 6-7 freshman Isaiah Wilkins, Virginia can defend Thomas in a variety of ways. The Cavaliers aren’t as deep on the perimeter since losing All-ACC candidate Justin Anderson to a fractured finger.
A 6-6 junior, Anderson suffered the injury late in the first half against Louisville last Saturday night at JPJ. He sat out the second half of that game, which Virginia won 52-47, then watched from the bench Wednesday night, in street clothes, at PNC Arena in Raleigh.
“Justin’s a great player, but I think we have great players to step up right behind him,” Gill said. “I think we’ll be fine in this next one too.”
The Cavaliers have seven regular-season games remaining, and they may be without Anderson (13.4 ppg) for all of them. In Anderson’s absence, 6-8 junior Evan Nolte, 6-5 redshirt freshman Devon Hall and 6-5 freshman Marial Shayok have taken on larger roles.
“I don’t think you can ever replace a guy that’s had the season that Justin’s had,” McKay said. “So I think for us it’s just finding alternate ways to have the same fluidity offensively, and it’s not going to be from a Justin Anderson transition lob dunk, or a Justin Anderson 24-foot 3-pointer. Maybe it’s an extra pass or two, a hockey assist, or an Evan Nolte putback, or Marial Shayok off the bounce, or whatever. I just think we’ll have to find different ways without him, and we obviously are hoping for a quick recovery. But until we have him again, this is our team, and we believe in one another.”
Nolte started in Anderson’s place against NC State, played 24 minutes and hit a 3-pointer that gave the `Hoos their first lead of the second half. Hall scored four points and assisted Tobey on a three-point play that pushed Virginia’s lead to 42-37 with 4:44 remaining.
For Shayok, the box score wasn’t as encouraging. In 11 minutes, he missed all three of his three field-goal attempts, including two from beyond the 3-point arc. That marked the fifth straight scoreless game for Shayok, who made multiple important shots for Virginia before falling into this recent slump.
“There’s an ebb and flow to every freshman’s season, but it’s amazing how when the ball goes through the net, things change so quickly,” McKay said. “I think he, like Evan, just needed to see it go in. And once Evan saw it go in again, he was a great shooter. I think the same will be true for Marial. Once he gets a bucket or two, I think he’ll start feeling better about his ability to impact the game.”
Hall played 12 minutes against the Wolfpack, his longest appearance in nearly a month. He had a fast-break basket in each half. The first put the Cavaliers up 15-13, and the second stretched their lead to 38-33 with 6:22 left and forced a timeout by NC State.
“It wasn’t as flamboyant, but the transition layups that Devon got were just as important as an Anderson dunk,” McKay said. “He got out in front of the defense and finished at the basket, and those transition points were crucial in a game like that. And then he had a great pass to Mike, which was a big play, so I just think that continues to help fill his confidence bank as well.”
The `Hoos, who are in their sixth season under head coach Tony Bennett, sit atop the ACC standings. Their lone loss was to Duke, which rallied for a 69-63 victory Jan. 31 at JPJ.
Not since the days of Ralph Sampson have the Cavaliers received so much national attention, but they’ve handled success and the spotlight’s glare remarkably well.
“I think it’s a direct reflection of Coach and his leadership style,” McKay said. “We really don’t ever talk about [rankings and] that stuff. What we’re interested in is just getting better and honoring that process. So I think what we’re pleased with is our guys’ pursuit of playing quality basketball, and doing it in such a way that exhibits humility and passion, the things that are important to us.”