By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the list of UVa men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett’s favorite places, Charlotte, N.C., ranks at or near the top. He spent three seasons there with the NBA’s Hornets in the `90s, and during his time in the Queen City he met his wife, Laurel, at a local church.
“It’s a great city,” Bennett said, and he’s delighted to be heading back to Charlotte this week.
The NCAA tournament field was announced Sunday night, and Virginia received the No. 2 seed in the East Region. UVa (29-3) will face No. 15 seed Belmont (22-10) in a second-round game Friday at Time Warner Cable Arena in downtown Charlotte. The winner will meet No. 7 seed Michigan State (23-11) or No. 10 seed Georgia (21-10) on Sunday.
Michigan State, of course, knocked off Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen of last year’s NCAA tournament.
The Cavaliers’ tourney opener Friday will start about 30 minutes after the conclusion of the 12:40 p.m. game between Michigan State and Georgia. UVa is making back-to-back appearances in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994 and ’95.
“It’s an exciting time,” Bennett said, “there’s no question. As a player, I’ve been through it. I’ve been on the other end when we didn’t get selected. As a coach, I’ve been there too.
“We knew we were in, so that was a good feeling. It was just a matter of where and what seed we’d get.”
Belmont’s starters include redshirt sophomore guard Taylor Barnette, who began his college career at UVa and whose sister, Sarah Beth, is a senior forward on the Virginia women’s basketball team.
Barnette’s off-balance 3-pointer as time expired in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game March 7 sent Belmont to the NCAA tournament. Barnette (83 for 208) is one of three Bruins to have attempted at least 145 shots from 3-point range this season.
“They’re challenging,” Bennett said, “because of the way they play, the way the move the ball, the way they stretch you, the way they shoot, and the soundness they play with. Certainly a dangerous team.”
This is Belmont’s 29th season under Rick Byrd, whose record is 619-311 at the Nashville, Tenn., school.
“Very good team,” Bennett said. “Very good coach.”
In last year’s NCAA tournament, the Wahoos spent the opening weekend in Raleigh, N.C., at PNC Arena, which their fans made seem like John Paul Jones Arena South at times. Bennett is hoping for a similar atmosphere in Charlotte, “where hopefully a lot of UVa fans can show up and support us when we play on Friday,” he said.
The `Hoos watched last year’s selection show in Danville, at Kickback Jack’s, the sports bar where they stopped on their way back to Charlottesville from Greensboro, N.C.
A few hours earlier, at the Greensboro Coliseum, the Cavaliers had won the ACC tournament for the first time since 1976, and there was unbridled joy in their private room at Kickback Jack’s when they learned they’d been awarded a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.
With JPJ unavailable Sunday night because of a Fleetwood Mac concert, the `Hoos watched the selection show in a large classroom at UVa’s Darden School of Business. The team’s reaction was more restrained this year. Around 6:15 p.m., CBS unveiled Virginia as the East Region’s No. 2 seed, and players and coaches and their family members remained seated as they applauded.
“A little less probably joyous celebration from a year before, just because of the circumstances,” Bennett told reporters later on a teleconference, “but nonetheless a celebration.”
On the eve of the ACC tournament, most bracketologists projected Virginia, which won the conference’s regular-season title outright, as a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. But the Cavaliers, after defeating Florida State in the quarterfinals, lost Friday night to North Carolina, and that setback hurt their stock with the NCAA selection committee.
The No. 1 seeds went to Kentucky (Midwest), Duke (South), Villanova (East) and Wisconsin (West), which rallied to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game Sunday. Many Virginia fans were irate over what they perceived as a snub, but Bennett expressed no outrage about the selection committee’s choices.
“Wisconsin is a terrific team,” he said. “There were a number of teams that probably could have gotten a 1 seed.”
Anyway, Bennett noted, a high seed is no guarantee of success in the NCAA tournament. The Cavaliers’ challenge now, Bennett said, is to “show up and do our work,” and redshirt junior Anthony Gill agreed.
Virginia’s seed “really doesn’t matter,” said Gill, a 6-8 forward who graduated from Charlotte Christian School. “We’re blessed regardless of what the situation is.
“In some ways it could work out even more in our favor than if we were the No. 1 seed. But I think that we’re just going to go out and play our hardest, and we’re going to put the best UVa basketball team on the court that we can.”
With its ability to spread the floor, as Davidson did at JPJ in late December, Belmont figures to pose a stern test for the `Hoos. Then, if they get past the Bruins, Michigan State and its heralded coach, Tom Izzo, may well stand between the Cavaliers and another trip to the Sweet Sixteen.
Still, Bennett said, “You can’t get so caught up [in your opponents]. You have to know as much as you can about the teams you’re playing, matchups, all that stuff. But it comes down to the quality of basketball that you can play, and that’s been kind of our philosophy all season long — controlling what you can control.”
The Cavaliers’ losses were to nationally ranked opponents — Duke, Louisville and UNC — by a total of 12 points. Moreover, only one of those games was played in Charlottesville. But Virginia has dropped two of its past three games and has yet to fully integrate junior swingman Justin Anderson back into the lineup. And so critics have questioned UVa’s ability to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Anderson, a second-team All-ACC selection, missed the final eight games of the regular season, the first seven because of a fractured finger, the last one after having an appendectomy March 5.
Asked if the Cavaliers have something to prove in the NCAA tournament, Gill said, “I think we just gotta prove it to ourselves. We’re tired of everybody saying, `You’re not this, you’re not that.’
“Let’s go out and prove them wrong, UVa. Let’s show them we can do it, and let’s show ourselves we can do it. I think these last couple games we’ve been having lapses that aren’t the typical UVa basketball that we play, and I think that we have to get better at that.”
Anderson returned for Virginia’s two games at the ACC tournament last week, but he failed to score in Greensboro and looked out of sync offensively at times. But he wasn’t cleared for full participation in practice until two days before the team left for Greensboro, and the Cavaliers expect the extra work Anderson will get this week to pay dividends.
“His emotions have not changed,” Gill said. “He’s the same person on the court. He’s just trying to get his feel back for the game. So I think this next week of practice will really help him out a lot. He’s continued to keep working, and I think good things will happen for him.”