By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Due to a scheduling quirk, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team is about to play a Big Ten/ACC Challenge road game for the third time in four seasons. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for the Cavaliers, who arrived in this city Monday evening.
“I kind of like going on the road,” senior center Mike Tobey said. “We go to a place we don’t get to normally experience, which is nice.”
Tobey was a freshman on the UVA team that won 60-54 at Wisconsin on Nov. 28, 2012. Two years later, Virginia knocked off Big Ten newcomer Maryland 76-65 in College Park. For Tobey and his classmates, their final game in this made-for-TV series comes Tuesday night.
At 7:30, in a game ESPN will televise, No. 10 Virginia (5-1) meets Ohio State (2-3) at 19,500-seat Value City Arena.
The Wahoos look forward to their annual clashes with Big Ten foes, Tobey said.
“I think a lot of guys on the team are really excited,” he said, “because for years now, we’ve been considered the two best conferences in college basketball. So it’s definitely a lot of fun to go against them and have the bragging rights.”
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said: “It’s two power conferences coming in to lock horns.”
The contrast between these teams, which haven’t met since 1981, when Virginia’s Ralph Sampson ruled the college basketball world, is striking.
Bennett’s rotation includes two fifth-year seniors — 6-5 Malcolm Brogdon (16.7 ppg) and 6-8 Anthony Gill (12.5 ppg) — as well as the 7-0 Tobey (9.8 ppg). Ohio State head coach Thad Matt’s roster, meanwhile, includes only one senior, who has yet to play this season, and one junior: 6-7 forward Marc Loving, the team’s leading scorer (16.6 ppg).
“So they’re still trying to connect the dots a bit,” said UVA assistant coach Brad Soderberg, who prepared the scouting report on the Buckeyes. “They’ve got the pieces. You can just tell that they haven’t figured it all out yet.”
Ohio State has dropped three straight games — to UT-Arlington, Louisiana Tech and, most recently, Memphis — since a Nov. 17 win over Grambling.
“What I’ve seen of them is, they’re very talented and very athletic,” Bennett said, “but in some positions inexperienced and young, and you’re seeing the ups and downs. You see them look terrific at times, in stretches, and then at times you see their youth or their inexperience show itself.”
This is Matta’s 12th season at Ohio State, where his record is 301-97. The Buckeyes have advanced to the NCAA tournament nine times — and won an NIT championship — during his tenure in Columbus.
“Thad Matta is too good of a coach for them to be down for a while,” Soderberg said. “They’ve got a very talented team, a very big team. You can tell they’re built for the Big Ten.”
The Buckeyes’ starters include JaQuan Lyle, a 6-5, 210-pound freshman whom Soderberg called “a star in the making.” In Ohio State’s overtime loss to Memphis on Friday, Lyle had 18 points and eight assists.
“What a talent,” Bennett said. “Absolutely you have to be aware of his talent and his ability, and what he brings with his size, playing point guard, and his vision and pace.”
The Cavaliers haven’t played since the night before Thanksgiving, when they defeated Lehigh 80-54 at John Paul Jones Arena. The players reconvened Friday at JPJ to begin prepping for Ohio State.
“Every coach right now is fighting early in the year to get their team to be as sound and consistent as possible to give themselves the best chance,” said Bennett, who’s in his seventh season at UVA.
At times, Bennett noted, the `Hoos have had “some breakdowns, but that’s part of the early season and playing this competition. We’ll keep growing and learning.”
Since losing Nov. 16 at George Washington, the `Hoos have won four straight, including three games in the Charleston (S.C.) Classic, where they defeated George Mason for the title Nov. 22.
“I told our guys, it’s about where we’re at right now and taking the next step and just continuing to get better,” Bennett said.
He’s also reminded his players that Virginia is “going to be hunted this year, being from the ACC and having a preseason ranking. Teams are ready for you. Ohio State will be ready for us, and we’ve gotta be ready for them.”
The Buckeyes are averaging 11,563 fans at home this season. Overall, Ohio State has won 108 of its past 120 games at the Value City Arena.
“This is a challenging setting we’re going into,” Bennett said.
Such an environment might unnerve a team dominated by underclassmen. That the Cavaliers are so seasoned should help them Tuesday night.
“What we lack in the wow factor, we make up for with the experience factor,” Soderberg said.
Tobey agreed. “I think it helps a ton. I don’t know what to expect at Ohio State — I’ve heard it’s a really big gym and a good crowd — so I think a lot of guys having that experience is definitely a key for a game like this.”
After Tuesday night, the Cavaliers will play two more games before breaking for final exams. Virginia hosts William & Mary (4-2) at 2 p.m. Saturday at JPJ. Then comes a Dec. 8 date with No. 20 West Virginia in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“It’s part of having a good non-conference schedule that we’re ready to embrace,” Tobey said.