March 19, 2015

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By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After a day of classes in Charlottesville, the UVa men’s basketball team made it here in time for a late dinner Wednesday night. But the Cavaliers’ NCAA tournament experience did not begin in earnest until Thursday afternoon, when they arrived at Time Warner Cable Arena for interviews with media members.

A 40-minute practice on the main court followed. It was open to the public, and the sixth-ranked Wahoos gave little away during this session, sticking primarily to shooting and passing drills.

During one stretch, to the delight of UVa fans in the stands, junior swingman Justin Anderson hit 10 straight 3-pointers. That was welcome evidence he’s recovering from the setbacks — a fractured finger and then an appendectomy — that sidelined him for UVa’s final eight regular-season games.

The atmosphere was more intense during Virginia’s first practice of the day, at UNC Charlotte’s Halton Arena. For about an hour, the `Hoos focused primarily on defense, the cornerstone of head coach Tony Bennett‘s program.

“Vision,” Bennett reminded his players. “Find your guy.”

At approximately 3:10 p.m. Friday, Virginia (29-3), the No. 2 seed in the East Region, will face No. 15 seed Belmont (22-10) in a second-round game. Their respective seeds notwithstanding, the Wahoos are wary of the Bruins, and for good reason.

“It’s a difficult team to match up with,” Bennett said. “I don’t care what kind of defensive system you play. When teams shoot that well and they get it going, whether you’re pressuring or zoning or trying to play [a] pack defense like us, it presents problems.”

This will be UVa’s second game in two seasons in this NBA arena. On Nov. 16, 2013, Virginia exploited its size advantage inside and defeated Davidson 70-57 at Time Warner Cable Arena.

That win did not come easily for the Cavaliers, and neither did their 83-72 victory over the Wildcats in the Dec. 30, 2014, rematch at John Paul Jones Arena. In that game, Davidson made 11 of 28 shots from 3-point range, and the Bruins will try to hurt UVa from the outside, too.

“They’re a lot like Davidson,” Virginia forward Evan Nolte said.

Belmont has attempted 841 3-pointers this season and averages 10 makes per game. Virginia, by contrast, has attempted 449 3-pointers. Of Bennett’s players, only guard Malcolm Brogdon has shot more than 100.

Three Bruins have attempted at least 145 treys apiece this season, led by former UVa guard Taylor Barnette with 208. He’s made a team-high 83.

“He’s a high-level shooter,” Brogdon said of Barnette, who transferred to Belmont in the spring of 2013 after his freshman year at UVa. “Very quick release. He releases it above his head, and when his confidence is going, he can really get it going from the perimeter.”

Barnette’s sister, Sarah Beth, is a senior forward on the Virginia women’s basketball team. “I guess I wasn’t shocked, because I already had an idea it might happen,” she said of the UVa-Belmont match-up. “But it’s pretty crazy.”

Not surprisingly, her brother fielded a series of UVa-related questions Thursday at Belmont’s press conference at Time Warner Cable Arena.

“I have a lot of respect for that program and Coach Bennett and all those guys, so it will be a lot of fun playing against them,” said Barnette, whose last-second 3-pointer in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game sent Belmont to the NCAAs.

Barnette, a redshirt sophomore from Lexington, Ky., has shared with Belmont’s coaching staff his insight into Bennett’s system. That information, though, probably has limited value, head coach Rick Byrd said.

“We obviously have asked Taylor some questions and he’s offered opinions about things, but here’s the real difference: If you watch Virginia on video, you already know what they do,” Byrd said. “They’re one of those programs that do what they do and they do it great and they do it consistently and they’re not going to change.

“We’re not going to see a 1-3-1 zone tomorrow, [so] we didn’t get ready for one. We’re going to see a really good man-to-man defense and a team that doesn’t do a whole lot of different things on offense. Certainly enough to prepare for, but it’s right there for you to see, and I think most coaches admire that kind of program more than any — somebody that will just go in and tell you, `This is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it so good that we’re going to beat you,’ and that’s what they do.”

When Bennett came to UVa from Washington State in the spring of 2009, he brought with him the Pack-Line defense devised by his father, Dick. It’s a man-to-man scheme designed to keep opponents out of the lane and force them to take contested outside shoots.

Don’t expect to see radically different tactics Friday from the Cavaliers, who lead the nation in scoring defense (50.8 ppg).

“I think the approach for us, what’s worked in the past, is making each possession a difficult shot,” associate head coach Ritchie McKay said. “And when we do that, we’re pretty good defensively.

“We obviously know our scouting report and our personnel, but we’re not changing what we do every day. And that’s the beauty of the Pack: Coach builds it to where you have an opportunity to see a lot of different stuff every day, a lot of different actions. And teams have gone small against us, with four guards, and that’s given us some problems early. But I think the more we’ve worked on it, the better we’ve gotten.”

The Bruins aren’t tall, and they’re not nearly as proficient on defense as on offense. That should bode well for UVa’s big men, a group that includes 6-8 Anthony Gill, 6-8 Darion Atkins, 7-0 Mike Tobey, 6-8 Evan Nolte and 6-7 Isaiah Wilkins.

Moreover, Belmont has barely outrebounded its opponents this season, and Virginia has been dominant on the glass. The Cavaliers are averaging almost eight rebounds more than their opponents per game.

The UVa-Belmont winner will face No. 7 seed Michigan State or No. 10 seed Georgia on Sunday at a time to be determined. The Spartans meet the Bulldogs at 12:40 p.m. Friday in Charlotte.

The `Hoos enter the NCAA tourney having dropped two of their past three games. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Virginia started slowly in each of those losses: at Louisville in the March 7 regular-season finale and to North Carolina last Friday in an ACC semifinal at the Greensboro Coliseum.

“When you’re playing the Pack-Line D, it’s a defense that, like Coach Bennett says, is all about percentages,” Brogdon said. “So if you’re not ready at the beginning, it trickles down to the rest of the game, and possession by possession, a team’s going to pick you apart if you don’t come out ready.”

This is the second straight trip to the NCAAs for UVa, which was a No. 1 seed in last year’s tourney. Most of the key players are back from the team that advanced to the Sweet Sixteen before losing to Michigan State, including Brogdon, Anderson, Gill, Atkins, Tobey, Nolte and London Perrantes.

“I definitely feel like last year I had a lot more butterflies with it being my first NCAA tournament,” said Perrantes, a sophomore point guard from Los Angeles. “This year it’s just basketball.”

Brogdon said: “We have guys that have been to the NCAA tournament now, and we’re poised and we know how to fight back in tough games on big stages, and I think that’s the strength that we’ve built over the last year.”

Gill, a redshirt junior, graduated from Charlotte Christian School, so this is a homecoming of sorts for him.

“My whole family’s going to be here [Friday],” he said. “I’m blessed to be in this situation.”

His relatives won’t be the only ones in the arena rooting for the Cavaliers. On the opening weekend of last year’s NCAA tournament, Virginia fans all but took over PNC Arena in Raleigh, and the team is hoping for similar support Friday.

“All year our fan base has been a big factor in why we win and why we’ve been able to have the success we’ve had,” said Brogdon, who’s from Atlanta. “Being on the East Coast and having our families able to come to the games is huge.”

Atkins said: “It definitely keeps up the team energy and our morale … It definitely plays a huge part in what we do.”

Anderson, a second-team All-ACC selection, has been a huge part of the Cavaliers’ success this season, too, with his 3-point shooting and game-changing defensive plays.

Now, with the Cavaliers at a stage of the season where any game could be their last, Anderson is trying to regain the form that made him an All-America candidate before he fractured the small finger on his shooting hand Feb. 7.

After his March 5 appendectomy, Anderson wasn’t cleared to practice until two days before Virginia’s opener at the ACC tournament, and he failed to score in two games in Greensboro.

The 6-6 left-hander has practiced four times this week, with no restrictions. Anderson will play Friday with his small finger taped to his ring finger, as he did in Greensboro. Still, his stamina and conditioning should be better than they were at the ACC tournament, and that’s good news for the `Hoos.

“We will take whatever we can get from him,” Perrantes said.

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