Dec. 18, 2015
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the latest Associated Press poll, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team is ranked No. 8. Whether that top-10 status is justified will be much clearer by about 11:15 Tuesday night.
“We’ll know who we are, where we need to improve,” assistant coach Jason Williford said.
Two significant tests await the Cavaliers (8-1) before they break for the holidays, both at John Paul Jones Arena. UVA hosts Villanova (8-1) at noon Saturday and California (8-2) at 9 p.m. Tuesday.
The Wildcats are ranked No. 12 in the AP poll. The Golden Bears are unranked, but in the latest 2016 mock draft on NBAdraft.net, three of their players are projected as first-round picks.
“It’s going to be a big challenge,” assistant coach Brad Soderberg said. “I remember one of the first meetings I was in as a member of this staff [last spring]. We talked about completing our schedule before Christmas. Do we want to [choose the more difficult path] or not? Do we want to pretty much go into the ACC with some guaranteed wins? And we decided: No, let’s really put ourselves to the final exam, so to speak. So with Villanova and Cal coming in before Christmas, we’re going to learn a lot.”
Head coach Tony Bennett said: “You sit there in the spring and summer, `Hey, we’ve got an experienced team, let’s find the best schedule we can to help prepare us and reveal things about ourselves heading into conference play, and hopefully it’s a good thing that helps us later on.’
“And it feels good. And then you get right up to it and you’re like, `What were we thinking, now?’ ” Bennett laughed. “It doesn’t feel quite as comfortable as it did back in the spring.”
The Wahoos haven’t played since Dec. 8, when they rallied to defeat then-No. 14 West Virginia 70-54 in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.
“That win over West Virginia, in light of the struggles we had in the first half, was really a momentum-builder,” Soderberg said. “Hopefully the 10-day break for finals didn’t cool us off. But however you slice it, there are going to be two really good teams playing Saturday afternoon, and it’s going to be a fun one.”
Virginia has faced a variety of systems and styles this season, but no opponent quite like Villanova, which is in its 15th season under head coach Jay Wright.
The Wildcats start 6-11, 245-pound Daniel Ochefu in the middle and surround him with four perimeter players: 6-6 Kris Jenkins, 6-5 Josh Hart, 6-3 Ryan Arcidiacono and 6-2 Jalen Brunson. (Brunson’s father, Rick, was director of operations for UVA men’s basketball under then-head coach Dave Leitao in 2007-08 and 2008-09).
Each of those four has attempted at least 39 shots from 3-point range this season.
“Coach Bennett made a great point in our last film session,” Soderberg said. “We have faced teams that have four perimeter shooters, but we seldom face four guards at a time. There will be teams that’ll have a big guy that can step out and shoot, but he can’t make a play off the dribble. This team, they have four guys on the court all the time that can shoot the 3 and make plays off the dribble. So if you over-close out trying to prevent the 3, they’re going to beat you off the dribble. And if you’re soft closing out, then they’ll shoot the 3.”
Overall, Villanova has attempted a staggering 280 treys, an average of 31.1 per game. Virginia, by comparison, has attempted 141, an average of 15.7 per game.
“They’re not shy about it,” Soderberg said of the Wildcats. “I’ve heard Coach Wright interviewed about it, and he says, `I want to install confidence in our guys, and so I want them to shoot the 3-ball as much as they feel they’re open.’ ”
Junior point guard London Perrantes noted this week that the Cavaliers “play good guards night in and night out.” He acknowledged, though, that Villanova is unique.
“You’re playing against four guards, which is a little bit different,” Perrantes said. “But we go up against good guards every day in practice. So I feel like all the work we put in against each other will help us in this game, especially. But it’s definitely exciting to go up against a team like Villanova.”
Under Bennett, the Cavaliers’ trademark has been their stifling Pack-Line defense. It’s designed to limit penetration by opponents.
“We don’t give up open 3s,” Perrantes said, “but we would rather have them shoot 3s than have them get in the paint.
“When they shoot 30 3s a game, they’re obviously going to make some. But we’ve got to be able to keep them contested and make [Villanova] think that we’re there at all times.”
Perrantes missed two games early this month — Virginia’s wins over Ohio State and William & Mary — after having an appendectomy on Nov. 29. He returned for the West Virginia game and scored all 13 of his points in the second half to lead UVA’s comeback.
The break for final exams helped him physically, Perrantes said. “I’m getting my wind back, and the pain is gone, basically.”
Virginia has won seven straight since losing Nov. 16 to George Washington at the Smith Center in D.C. The Colonials (9-1) are ranked No. 21 by the AP. By the time the Cavaliers open ACC play Jan. 2 against Notre Dame at JPJ, they will have faced their most rugged non-conference schedule in Bennett’s seven seasons in Charlottesville.
“It’s what Coach wanted,” Williford said. “He wanted a tough schedule. He wanted to be tested prior to ACC play, and so far we’ve done OK.”
The goal now for the `Hoos is “to take that next step,” Perrantes said, “and it starts on Saturday.”
LOOKING AHEAD: The Villanova game is sold out, but tickets are still available for Virginia’s home dates with Cal (Tuesday, 9 p.m.) and Oakland (Dec. 30, 6 p.m.).
Also, a limited number of tickets will go on sale to the public Friday at 5 p.m. for the Cavaliers’ ACC opener, Jan. 2 against Notre Dame at JPJ. That game will start at 5 p.m.