By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHICAGO — In a private session, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team practiced early Thursday afternoon at the Advocate Center, the Chicago Bulls’ training facility.
Friday night will find Virginia across the street in the most public of settings: the 21,223-seat United Center, where the Bulls play their home games. At 7:10 p.m. Eastern, in a Midwest Region semifinal CBS will televise, No. 1 seed Virginia (28-7) faces fourth-seeded Iowa State (23-11).
The game has historical implications for each team. The Cyclones, of the Big 12, haven’t advanced past the Sweet Sixteen since 2000. The Cavaliers’ drought has lasted even longer. Not since 1995 has UVA played in the Elite Eight.
The Wahoos reached this stage of the NCAA tournament two years ago and lost to Michigan State at Madison Square Garden. Many of the players from that Virginia team are still in the program, and to break through Friday night “would be a huge accomplishment,” said fifth-year senior Malcolm Brogdon, the ACC player of the year.
“It would be very exciting for the team, for the coaching staff, for our university, for Charlottesville. But I’m not sure that’s something that can be put into words until we get it done.”
Brogdon is part of a senior class that also includes Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte and Caid Kirven. Tobey, a 7-0 center, believes the experience UVA’s upperclassmen gained in 2014 will help them Friday night.
The atmosphere in New York City for the Michigan State game “was definitely something you’ll never really forget,” Tobey said Thursday. “It was insane. Part of it was being at Madison Square Garden, but it’s important for us to realize it’s going to [be intense] and not let it bother us too much either way.”
Another Cavalier, redshirt sophomore guard Darius Thompson, played in the 2014 Sweet Sixteen too, but for Tennessee. Thompson transferred to Virginia after the 2013-14 season.
“It’s a big stage,” Thompson said, “but you’ve just got to go into it like you do every day for practice or every game. You can’t really look at it like, `Now I’m in the Sweet Sixteen, so let’s treat it differently.’ ”
Much of the talk ahead of the UVA-Iowa State clash has centered on the best players for each team: Brogdon (18.6 ppg), a 6-5, 215-pound guard, and Georges Niang (20.2), a 6-8, 230-pound forward. But additional storylines abound, including the matchup between point guards London Perrantes and MontÃ© Morris.
Perrantes, a 6-2 junior from Los Angeles, is a three-year starter for Virginia head coach Tony Bennett. Morris, a 6-3 junior from Flint, Mich., is a three-year starter at Iowa State, where he played his first two seasons for Fred Hoiberg, who is now, coincidentally, the Chicago Bulls’ head coach.
This season, Morris has directed the offense for Steve Prohm, who came to Iowa State from Murray State. Morris has more than four times as many assists (233) as turnovers (56), and he’s averaging 13.9 points per game.
“Very quick,” Perrantes said of Morris. “Runs the team well. Very athletic. He can shoot the ball well. He’s a very good point guard, so it’ll be exciting to go out and play against him.”
Morris is the second-leading scorer on a team whose starters each average at least 11.3 points per game.
“I know that everybody is talking about Niang,” Virginia associate head coach Ron Sanchez said Thursday, “but the truth is that what makes Niang so good is that the other guys around him are so gifted. You can’t focus on one guy.
“Morris is kind of the propeller that makes that boat go at the point guard spot. It’s going to be very important that we keep him in front, that we contest his shots, because he’s one of those guys that can score 20.”
The Cyclones average 82.1 points per game, and “they’re one of the best offensive teams I’ve seen, for sure,” Bennett said.
This is not Perrantes’ first trip to the Chicago area. In December 2012, he played for his high school, Crespi Carmelite, in the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. In five games, Perrantes averaged 25 points and made 16 treys.
“I remember that like it was yesterday,” Perrantes said Thursday after UVA’s press conferences at the United Center. “It was a lot of fun. Really cold.”
Sanchez caught part of the Proviso West tourney — Perrantes signed with the Cavaliers in November 2012 — and he left Chicago impressed.
“I remember he had one game where he was 100 percent from the 3-point line,” Sanchez said. “I think he made six or seven of them, and I came back [to Charlottesville] and told Tony, `He shoots it a lot better than I thought.’ His team did not win the tournament, but I think he ended up being the MVP, which is very, very unusual. So he had a special tournament.”
Perrantes has had a special career at UVA, which has won 88 of 106 games during his three seasons. Always a talented playmaker, he’s distinguished himself as a shooter this season too. He’s 70 for 146 (47.7 percent) from 3-point range.
Asked Thursday about Morris, Prohm said his point guard “has a really good feel, has a really good pace to his game,” and that’s how the Cavaliers describe Perrantes too.
“I can’t say if it’s Cali cool or how he’s been raised to play, but I know that’s how he is and that’s who he is on the court,” Brogdon said. “He provides that composure for us. When things get a little rowdy, he’s the primary ball-handler, and when you’re the primary ball-handler, you want to be composed, you want to be poised in times of chaos up and down.”
The best point guards, Morris said, know “where everybody is going to be on the court, and I think [Perrantes] knows where everybody is going to be. He makes great plays for Gill and Brogdon and players like that on the court.”
Iowa State and UVA rank among the nation’s most efficient offensive teams, but their meeting will offer a compelling clash of styles.
The Cyclones average 82.1 points per game, and “offensively they’re good at all five spots,” Nolte said.
Led by Brogdon and the 6-8 Gill (13.6 ppg), this is the most talented offensive team Bennett has had in his seven seasons as Virginia’s head coach. Still, the foundation of Bennett’s program is his trademark Pack-Line defense.
These Cavaliers have not been as suffocating on defense as some of their recent predecessors, but they’re still holding opponents to an average of 59.5 points per game.
“If you watch our games,” Niang said, “we get a lot of easy buckets at the rim, and I think that’s what their Pack-Line is really trying to take away. So obviously we’re going to have to find some ways of moving them around to open up those easy lanes for us to get to the rim.”
The `Hoos will look to counter the Cyclones’ moves.
“I think that’s something we pride ourselves on,” Gill said. “We really try to impose our will on the other team and make them play the game that we want to play, defensively and offensively.”
The UVA-Iowa State winner will meet No. 10 seed Syracuse or No. 11 seed Gonzaga in the Midwest Region final Sunday night, with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
GLORY DAYS: On the Virginia team that reached the NCAA quarterfinals in 1995, Jason Williford was a senior and Mike Curtis a freshman. Both have been on Bennett’s staff at UVA for all seven years, Williford as an assistant coach and Curtis as head strength and conditioning coach.
The Cavaliers entered the NCAA tourney in ’95 seeded No. 4 in the Midwest Region. Virginia defeated Nicholls State in the first round and Miami (Ohio) in the second. Then, in a stunning upset, the `Hoos knocked off top-seeded Kansas in a Sweet Sixteen game in Kansas City, Mo.
“That was obviously one of the best memories of all my basketball career, overseas, high school, college,” Williford said Thursday.
Heading into the Sweet Sixteen, Williford recalled, the conventional wisdom was that Virginia could not beat Kansas.
“And I remember George Raveling being one of the CBS guys and saying, `No way Virginia’s got a chance,’ ” Williford said. “So I get on the bus before the game, and I’m [irked], and I’m talking so much trash: `Did you hear that? No one believes in us. It’s us against them.’ And we kind of went out with that attitude.”
The Cavaliers’ run ended in the NCAA quarterfinals, where they lost 68-63 to second-seeded Arkansas. But it was a magical experience for a team whose players included Junior Burrough, Chris Alexander, Curtis Staples, Harold Deane, Jamal Robinson, Yuri Barnes, Norman Nolan and Percy Ellsworth. (Cory Alexander also was on that team, but he missed the postseason with an injury.)
“We had such a good group, and we were as tight-knit as this group,” Williford said. “That’s one of the similarities I see with this team. There’s that family bond. And these guys play for one another, and that was similar to ’95.”
COMMONWEALTH CONNECTIONS: Niang’s hometown is listed as Methuen, Mass., but his parents are divorced, and his father lives in Virginia Beach.
“Growing up I’d be back and forth,” Niang said. “When we had breaks, I’d go down and see my father, who’s in the military [and] lives down in Virginia.”
Prohm grew up in Northern Virginia and remains a die-hard Washington Redskins fan.
“That’s my one true affiliation in that area now,” Prohm said. “But I followed Virginia [basketball] for a long time, back with John Crotty, Richard Morgan, some of those great, great teams.”
When Prohm was head coach at Murray State, he pursued Darius Thompson, then a high school star in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Thompson visited Murray State before choosing Tennessee.
“He’s the one guy I do know on the [Virginia roster],” Prohm said.
MEDIA DARLING: As he so often has in Charlottesville, Gill charmed the reporters who interviewed him Thursday in Chicago.
Asked if Bennett could be called the George Clooney of this NCAA tournament, Gill said, “You know, I’m not sure. I would say if somebody was going to play my life in a movie — if that’s what you were asking me — I would pretty much go with Denzel Washington, Will Smith, and any other mainstream actor that girls love.”
Gill and his fiancÃ©e, Jenna Jamil, will be married next month. Gill was asked Thursday how the wedding plans were progressing.
“I did three things,” he said. “I picked out my groomsmen, I tasted the cake, and I picked the shoes that I was going to wear, and that’s about it. Then I know I get married on April 8th, so then I’ll be there.”
STRONG FINISH: After making 2 of 3 shots from 3-point range in Virginia’s regular-season finale, a win over Louisville, Evan Nolte went 3 for 4 from beyond the arc in the ACC tournament. He’s 2 for 4 on 3-pointers in this NCAA tournament.
“Personally, it’s been awesome,” Nolte said, “because I’ve had a pretty volatile year in terms of playing time and also how I’ve been playing, and what position I’m playing. For me, it’s my last year, and to be able to play well at the end, when it matters the most, and have confidence and be loose out there and most of all just help contribute to the team, it definitely means a lot, and I’m really excited I’m doing that.”