By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Virginia men’s basketball team embarks Sunday night on a grueling stretch of four games in nine days.
To prepare, the second-ranked Cavaliers practiced this week. They also rested.
Virginia defeated Pittsburgh 61-49 on Monday night at John Paul Jones Arena. With six days between games, head coach Tony Bennett gave his players Tuesday and Thursday off.
Anthony Gill stopped by JPJ anyway, but not to work on his game. He came to see head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba for treatment.
“I’m just trying to take care of my body, because we still have a lot of season left,” Gill, a 6-8 post player, said after practice Friday. “We still have postseason play, so just trying to take care of our bodies as much as we can, get the rest that we need. More of a mental rest than a physical rest. We’re at it all the time, so to get those two days off was good for us.”
Gill, a redshirt junior, who leads the Cavaliers in rebounding, plays about 25 minutes a game. Sophomore point guard London Perrantes plays more than 33. Like Gill, Perrantes took advantage of the days off. He wasn’t in the practice gym putting up hundreds of shots, as he would be at other times.
“This time of year I really focus on rest and recovery and just being able to get that,” Perrantes said, “because after this week, I don’t think we’ll have another week like this till the season’s over.”
Strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis‘ approach this week?
“Be smart,” Curtis said Friday. “The guys who’ve accumulated a ton of minutes, those guys we want to be extra cautious with, so whatever we can do to facilitate recovery is going to be in their best interests.
“So, for some of those guys, we want them to completely stay off [the court]. Some of those who haven’t logged as many minutes and need to sharpen their swords, if they need to come in and get a few shots, that’s fine. But don’t overexert yourself. Don’t do anything else to accumulate more fatigue.”
Five regular-season games remain for ACC leader Virginia (24-1, 12-1), four of which come in rapid succession.
The first is Sunday at 6:30 p.m. against Florida State (15-12, 7-7) at sold-out JPJ. UVa plays at Wake Forest (12-15, 4-10) on Wednesday night, entertains Virginia Tech (10-16, 2-11) next Saturday afternoon, and then visits Syracuse (17-10, 8-6) on March 2.
The key during such a stretch, Gill said, is to remain focused on the next challenge.
“It’s easy to maybe win the first game, or win the first two games, and then drop off, lose the focus that you had going into it,” Gill said. “But we just have to be focused throughout the whole time. We have four games. We take it game by game, though, and don’t take any game for granted.”
The Cavaliers close the regular season March 7 at 12th-ranked Louisville (21-6, 9-5). The ACC tournament begins March 10 in Greensboro, N.C.
With postseason approaching, the players will spend a lot of time in the “cold tub,” assistant coach Jason Williford said, “taking care of those knees and ankles and getting those legs right. A lot of eating right and getting proper sleep. That’s what it is this time of year. We’re not doing anything different than anybody else. Everybody’s going through what we’re going through. You’ve got some bumps and some bruises and you’re banged up a little bit, but we’ve just got to play through that.”
The most banged-up Cavalier, of course, is swingman Justin Anderson, the team’s second-leading scorer (13.4 ppg). Anderson, a 6-6 junior, fractured the small finger on his shooting hand Feb. 7 against Louisville at JPJ. He had surgery the next day, but the `Hoos are hopeful he’ll be available for postseason, if not earlier.
Most of Anderson’s minutes have gone to 6-8 junior Evan Nolte and 6-5 freshman Marial Shayok, but his absence has affected other players, too. For the season, Perrantes is averaging 5.6 shots per game. In the three full games Virginia has played without Anderson, however, Perrantes has averaged nearly nine shots per game.
“My role has definitely changed on the offensive end,” Perrantes said, “just being able to look to shoot the ball more and look to be more aggressive.”
The `Hoos are unbeaten without Anderson, but the victories haven’t come easily. Virginia edged Louisville 52-47 — Anderson missed the second half of that game — and then won 51-47 at NC State on Feb. 11. Three days later, at JPJ, the Cavaliers secured a 61-60 win with a last-second defensive stop. Then, on Monday night, Pitt closed to 36-33 with about eight minutes left before UVa pulled away for its fifth straight win.
“People keep saying that we’re playing all these tight games because Justin’s gone, but we played tight games when Justin was here,” Gill said. “The ACC is a tough conference, and for us to go out there and get a win is just big enough. We’re just trying to go out there and get as many wins as we can, regardless of who’s on the court for us.”
Next up for Virginia is a Florida State team that’s won five of its past seven games.
In 2013-14, the Cavaliers played the Seminoles three times, winning each of those games. FSU lost such standouts as Okaro White and Ian Miller from that team, but at least one thing hasn’t changed in Tallahassee, Fla. As usual, the `Noles have a towering frontcourt.
“They’re huge,” Williford said. “Every year I’m like, `They can’t get any bigger,’ and they do.”
Florida State’s roster includes 7-3, 240-pound Boris Bojanovsky, 7-0, 240-pound Kiel Turpin and 7-1, 292-pound Michael Ojo.
The `Noles are “always going to be throwing somebody at the glass,” Gill said, “and that somebody happens to be a 7-footer this time, so we just have to be ready for that and be physical down there with them, because they’re big guys.”
In mid-December, FSU declared guard Aaron Thomas, who was averaging a team-high 14.8 points, ineligible, and he hasn’t returned. In Thomas’ absence, the Seminoles’ top scorer has been freshman guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes (13.6 ppg), who also leads the team in assists and steals.
FSU’s size increases the likelihood 7-0 junior Mike Tobey will play a significant role for UVa in the teams’ only regular-season meeting. The `Noles don’t use more than one 7-footer at a time, but they favor lineups that include two traditional post players, Williford said, “which will help us keep Mike on the floor. There will always be a matchup for Mike.”
The Cavaliers have faced several teams that spread the floor with four perimeter players, creating matchups that aren’t ideal for Tobey, who’s averaging 7.7 points and 5.3 rebounds.
FSU will be “traditional,” Williford said. “Mike will be able to play. All of our bigs will play.”