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Jan. 19, 2016

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — When it comes to Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball, expect the unexpected this season.

Virginia, which is seeking its third straight ACC regular-season title, has dropped three consecutive conference road games for the first time since 2012-13. Virginia Tech, picked to finish 14th in the ACC, has a 4-1 conference record.

At this time last week, defending NCAA champion Duke was ranked in the top 10 nationally and Syracuse was 1-4 in league play. The Blue Devils since have dropped three straight games, all to unranked opponents, and the Orange has won back-to-back road games, the most recent Monday night at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“This is my first go-around in the ACC, but you can see this is a big-boy league,” said UVA assistant coach Brad Soderberg, who joined Tony Bennett‘s staff last spring. “There are no days off. Road games are precious wins if you can get them, and we have to protect our home court.”

The Cavaliers’ struggles away from John Paul Jones Arena this season have been well-documented. But the 13th-ranked Wahoos (13-4 overall, 2-3 ACC) are unbeaten at JPJ, and that’s where they’ll play their next two games, against Clemson (12-6, 5-1) at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Syracuse (13-7, 3-4) at noon Saturday.

Clemson has not won in Charlottesville since Feb. 7, 2008, the season before Bennett took over as Virginia’s head coach. Still, the Tigers have reason to be confident Tuesday night. For the first time in program history, Clemson has won three consecutive games over ranked opponents, beating Louisville, Duke and, on Saturday afternoon, Miami.

“The guys played exceptionally well,” head coach Brad Brownell said. “I’m excited about what we’re doing and hoping we can continue it.”

Winning at JPJ will be “a tough task” for his team, Brownell acknowledged Monday on the weekly ACC coaches’ teleconference. “It’s one of the most difficult places to play in the league, not only because of the team that’s there, but because of the fan base and the home-court advantage.”

Bennett has great respect for Brownell, and the admiration is mutual.

Tony Bennett‘s one heck of a coach, now, and they’ve got guys on that team that are used to winning,” Brownell said. “We all go through stumbles. That team is going to right the ship and get themselves going again.

“They’ve got good players and good coaching. They’re too good not to figure some stuff out. We all have some trouble during a long season.”

In the scouting report Soderberg prepared on Clemson, Jason Blossomgame figures prominently. A 6-7, 220-pound redshirt junior, Blossomgame was named ACC player of the week Monday for his performances against Duke and Miami.

He averaged 21 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.0 blocked shots and made all 13 for 13 of his free throws in those victories. Blossomgame leads Clemson in scoring and rebounding.

“He’s on fire right now,” Soderberg said. “It’s kind of unique, because most of the time players’ statistical numbers go down once they get into conference play. His have gone up. And on top of that he’s a very fine defender.”

Fifth-year senior Anthony Gill is likely to start the game on Blossomgame, Soderberg said. Sophomore Isaiah Wilkins will also be asked to defend the Tigers’ star.

“But as is always the case when we’re at our best, it’s a team defensive thing,” Soderberg said. “It’s never one guy on one guy, and another guy on another guy.”

UVA has had little time to prepare for Clemson. The `Hoos played Sunday night in Tallahassee, Fla., where they lost 69-62 to hot-shooting Florida state.

Such a quick turnaround is less than ideal, Soderberg said, “but I think the value of the system that we try to play is for days like this. We play a certain way. We’re going to defend a ball screen a particular way. We’re going to defend a wide ball screen a particular way. And so I think because we have a system that’s uniform, it makes it a lot easier for us to go from game to game. If we changed our system based on the opponent, it could get real hairy when you had to do it quickly. We’ll be OK.”

That Brownell’s philosophy in many ways mirrors that Bennett adds another storyline to the game.

“Actually I said in our staff meeting this morning that what Clemson does is what we try to do, and I’m sure they say the same thing,” Soderberg said Monday. “They play a pack-type defense. The lane is always clogged. They’re going to bang you. They’re going to make it hard.

“I think it’ll be a battle of wills to see whose system is more refined and who can get it done.”

This has been a rough stretch for the Cavaliers, who find themselves in an unfamiliar place: well down in the conference standings.

“You’ve got to battle through it,” Bennett said. “You’ve got to fight, and with the league like it is, and I think with the talent of the league and with the depth of the league, you know you’re going to have to scrap.”

When things are going well, Bennett said, “you certainly appreciate it, and when you’re on the other side, you try to figure things out, knowing that you’re not that far away, and you’re hoping that things come together a little better. A few possessions here and there, and it makes all the difference in the world.”

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