By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the south side of John Paul Jones Arena, tents popped up throughout the afternoon Friday as students prepared to camp out overnight.
On the north side, outside the back entrance, sat an enormous truck on which this was emblazoned: ESPN College GameDay.
The University of Virginia men’s basketball team has played 13 games at JPJ this season. No. 14 will be different, at least for the Cavaliers’ fans.
For the second straight season, ESPN has brought its College GameDay traveling show to JPJ, this time for the ACC showdown between Virginia and North Carolina. At 6:30 p.m. Saturday, the third-ranked Cavaliers (21-6, 10-5) will meet the seventh-ranked Tar Heels (23-5, 12-3) before a capacity crowd.
On Grounds this week, Virginia point guard London Perrantes has heard plenty of buzz about the game from his fellow students.
“They’re excited for GameDay,” Perrantes said after practice Thursday.
The 6-2 junior smiled. “They ask what [the players] have to do for it, and we’re just like, `Nothing. Just play the game,’ ” Perrantes said.
“It’s just for the fans, but it’s good for the school. To bring that here two years in a row is fun for the fans.”
ESPN’s College GameDay show, live from JPJ, will air Saturday from 11 a.m. to noon. Gates at JPJ open at 9 a.m. for the free event, and the first 5,000 fans in attendance that morning will receive an official College GameDay T-shirt.
“To me, this is just a high-quality opponent and a big game and a big opportunity for us,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said, “and that’s kind of how I look at it. But you have to have a balance about it and say it’s great [that College GameDay is] here and notice it. But you can’t just block it out and say it doesn’t matter, or just become intoxicated with it.”
The Wahoos have won 18 straight games at JPJ, where they’re 13-0 this season. “It’s been a good place for us,” Bennett said.
The `Hoos haven’t lost at home since Jan. 31, 2015, also the date, coincidentally, of College GameDay’s previous visit to JPJ.
On that Saturday night, Duke rallied in the second half for a 69-63 victory.
Numerous players from that Virginia team are back this season, including All-America candidate Malcolm Brogdon. The fifth-year senior guard was asked Monday night about the players’ first taste of the College GameDay hoopla.
“I think our mindset was OK,” Brogdon said. “I think that’s exactly what it was. I don’t think it was good enough, but I think this year we’re even more experienced. We’ve experienced GameDay now once, and we’ll come out with that in the back of our minds and not let it distract us.”
UVA center Mike Tobey’s two siblings are in town for the game, and his brother and sister plan to be part of the College GameDay crowd.
“Because why not?” Tobey said. “It’s an awesome time. You always watch it every Saturday on the TV. So it’s nice to have it here, but at the end of the day you can’t get too wrapped up into it, because for us it’s just another game, and we’ve just got to be ready at 6:30. That’s what’s important to us.”
UVA and UNC haven’t met since the semifinals of last year’s ACC tournament. Behind swingman Justin Jackson, who scored 22 points, then a career high, the fifth-seeded Heels upset the top-seeded `Hoos 71-67 at the Greensboro Coliseum.
The 6-8 Jackson was 4 for 5 from 3-point range in that game. He’s shooting only 26.3 percent from beyond the arc this season, but the Cavaliers remain wary of Jackson. They feel the same way about UNC senior guard Marcus Paige, who’s been in a shooting slump for much of this season.
“You look at their numbers, and everyone’s saying they’re struggling shooting the ball from the 3,” Virginia assistant coach Jason Williford said. “But you and I know Paige has hurt us and Jackson has hurt us. We’ve got to understand that they’re very capable scorers, and we have to be there on the catch, guarding the 3, and guarding the drive.”
Carolina bounced back from its Feb. 17 loss to Duke in Chapel Hill in impressive fashion Wednesday night. In Raleigh, UNC defeated another one of its main rivals, NC State, 80-68.
For the Cavaliers, their road trip to Coral Gables, Fla., did not end so happily for them. Virginia’s late rally fell short Monday night in a 64-61 loss to No. 12 Miami. The defeat was particularly painful for Tobey, who missed a point-blank layup with about 40 seconds left that would have put the `Hoos ahead.
“That’s why I was down [after the game],” Tobey said Wednesday. “The lucky thing is we have another game on Saturday, so the season’s not over. So you can’t be down after one game. Just being able to bounce back is what’s important.”
Tobey, a 7-0 senior, is a critical piece on a team that hopes to make an extended postseason run, and the coaching staff continues to encourage him when he stumbles.
“You’ve got to grow from it and respond,” Bennett said, “and we’re going to need what he can give us — with his size, his touch, his ability — down the stretch.
“Mike, he’s got to give us what he can give us and shake off any discouragement that he has from a shot he could have hit, or a couple of those, and just battle. That’s what this thing’s about as you head down the stretch. Of course he’ll take [the Miami loss] hard. I think we all did. But it’s about what’s next. That’s always the case.”
Tobey is likely to play an important role against Carolina. The Tar Heels have a towering, talented frontcourt led by 6-10 senior Brice Johnson, who like Brogdon is a candidate to be named ACC player of the year next month.
Johnson leads UNC in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, and he’s second in steals. He’s shooting 61.8 percent from the floor.
As usual, head coach Roy Williams’ Heels love to run, so transition defense will be especially important for UVA. The Cavaliers have allowed an average of only 59.7 points per game, in part because they rarely give up fast-break baskets.
The Heels are averaging 83.8 points per game. Five UNC players are averaging in double figures: Johnson (17.0 ppg), Jackson (12.4), Paige (12.3), sophomore guard Joel Berry II (11.9) and junior big man Kennedy Meeks (10.0).
“To me, the key obviously is always getting back [on defense],” Williford said. “Then you’ve got to keep them off the [offensive] glass, and we’ve got to be really good in not turning the ball over.”
Bennett said: “They put a lot of pressure on you to get back and get that ball stopped and then protect the lane … They’re a very complete team, with experience.”
Virginia has three players averaging in double figures: Brogdon (18.2 ppg), 6-8 fifth-year senior Anthony Gill (13.6) and Perrantes (11.2). Against Miami on Monday night, Brogdon matched his career high with 28 points, but Perrantes and Gill combined for only 15.
The Cavaliers have other options on offense, including Tobey, sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins, and sophomore guards Devon Hall, Darius Thompson and Marial Shayok. Still, Williford said, the team’s top three threats must lead the way.
“I actually think we need Malcolm and London and A.G. to be at their best, and then we need those other guys — Darius, Devon, Marial, Mike, Zay — to just be solid,” Williford said. “Don’t make mistakes. Don’t turn the ball over. No defensive breakdowns. Shoot the ball with confidence.”
Three regular-season games remain for Virginia, which visits Clemson (16-12, 9-7) at 7 p.m. Tuesday and then hosts No. 11 Louisville (22-6, 11-4) next Saturday at 8:30 p.m.
The Cavaliers, who have won two straight ACC regular-season titles, are tied with No. 15 Duke and No. 23 Notre Dame for fourth place in the conference. The top four seeds in the ACC tournament, in which Louisville will not participate, receive byes into the quarterfinals.
“We gotta finish off strong,” Perrantes said. “Hopefully we can get these last three and go strong into the ACC tournament.”