By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the end of a grueling stretch of five games in 13 days, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team rested.
After defeating NC State at John Paul Jones Arena last Monday night, the Cavaliers took Tuesday off, and then Thursday, too. The players welcomed the break.
“A lot of teams around this time are starting to get burned out, and for us to get two days off and get a light practice in [between], it’s great for our bodies,” forward Anthony Gill said. “It’s great for our minds more importantly, because this is a grind, and a lot of people in the outside world don’t understand that. So when we do get a chance to rest, we take advantage of it.”
Seventh-ranked Virginia (21-5 overall, 10-4 ACC) returns to action Monday night against No. 11 Miami (21-5, 10-4). In a game ESPN is televising, the teams meet at 7 o’clock at the 8,000-seat BankUnited Center in Coral Gables, Fla.
Except for their exam break in December, this is the longest the Wahoos have gone between games all season. Their top priorities since the NC State game, Mike Curtis said, have been rest and recovery.
“When you have this big of a window to kind of recuperate, you want to take advantage of it,” said Curtis, UVA’s strength and conditioning coach for basketball.
“So I think what we’ve tried to do is schedule wisely to facilitate a little bit more recovery during this period. With some of the accumulated fatigue that we’ve built up to this point, we’re taking advantage of the opportunity now to replenish the tanks and build back up a little bit of those reserves, so that we’re ready to make a stretch run at the end.”
However, Curtis said, the coaching staff also wants to “make sure that we keep our sharpness, which means that we’re strategically placing practice on certain days and we’re making sure that practice has certain elements in terms of speed and velocity of the game, so that they don’t lose their timing and lose their conditioning.”
Head coach Tony Bennett said: “It’s a fine line you walk. You want to get stuff done and be intense, but try and keep it as purposeful and efficient. We know that it’s a long year.”
Four regular-season games remain for Virginia, which is tied for second in the ACC standings with Miami and Louisville, one game behind North Carolina (22-5, 11-3), which visits JPJ on Saturday. The top four seeds in the ACC tournament — in which Louisville will not participate — receive byes into the quarterfinals.
“We know it’s getting closer to March, getting closer to postseason,” UVA point guard London Perrantes, a junior, said after the NC State game. “We want to start playing our best ball, and I feel like we’re starting to get into that stride, and we just want to keep playing with confidence and keep playing hard.”
This is Bennett’s seventh year at Virginia, and Curtis has been with him every one of those seasons. Curtis, a former UVA player, was the Memphis Grizzlies’ strength and conditioning coach for six seasons, and Bennett relies on him heavily.
“I trust him,” Bennett said. “He understands — especially as technology has improved [for] monitoring stress levels physically, emotionally — just how worn down guys get. You can look at some of those diagnostics, which are helpful. And then sometimes you’ve just got to go by what you feel and what you see.”
Curtis said: “I think over the last couple years we’ve developed a certain synergy that gets to a point where [Bennett] tells me what it is he would like to accomplish, and I have a conversation with him as to what’s the best way to get that accomplished. I think we have the relationship now where there are almost scenarios where he knows what I’m getting ready to say.
“I think that just takes time. It takes an understanding of each other’s point of views, because at the end of the day we’re trying to get the same thing accomplished, which is winning games.”
As the season progresses, UVA’s practices grow shorter, “but you still have to get done what you have to get done,” Bennett said.
It’s not enough, Bennett said, for the players to walk through plays and situations on the practice court. “I think there’s a pace and an intensity that you have to have, where they’re engaged and they’re training, they’re receptive and they’re firing at the right pace or speed. But you don’t go as long.”
On practice days, Gill said, more “than likely we’re going to get in and get out, handle the things we need to take care of. Coach Bennett is a very experienced coach and we have a very experienced team, so we understand what we need to get done.”
Gill is one of two fifth-year seniors on the Cavaliers’ roster, along with guard Malcolm Brogdon. Virginia’s rotation also includes seniors Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte, Perrantes, redshirt sophomores Devon Hall and Darius Thompson, and sophomores Marial Shayok and Isaiah Wilkins.
“At this point of the season, we’re not going to put in any new plays, we’re not going to come up with anything new,” Brogdon said. “We’ve got to stick to what we do every night, and we’ve got to make sure we’re well-rested and attuned to the game.”
When Miami played at JPJ on Jan. 12, Brogdon scored a game-high 20 points to lead Virginia to a 66-58 victory. The Cavaliers expect the rematch to be fiercely contested, especially given the Hurricanes’ most recent result. Miami lost 96-71 at Chapel Hill on Saturday.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, are coming off a dominant performance. They outscored NC State by 20 points in the second half last Monday and rolled to a 73-53 win.
Gill scored only six points against the Wolfpack, nearly eight under his average, and so he did not exactly avoid JPJ last week, even on the team’s days off.
“One of those days I came in and got some light shots up,” Gill said. “Coach Curtis is not against that, as long as we’re not just staying on our feet all day. It’s more of a mental break than anything. Our bodies are well taken care of by the coaching staff, and Coach Curtis does a great job of taking care of us in the summer and preparing us for times like this.”