By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At 1 p.m. Sunday, a sellout crowd at the Wells Fargo Center, home of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, will watch top-ranked Villanova battle No. 12 Virginia in men’s basketball.
The 19,500-seat arena is about 25 miles from Villanova’s campus, but the Wildcats play several games each season.
The Cavaliers haven’t played in Philadelphia since Nov. 23, 2007, when they defeated Penn 100-85 at the storied Palestra. But the Philly area has been good to UVA hoops, and that’s a connection the coaching staff wants to see continue.
“It’s always good to go up there,” assistant coach Jason Williford said Friday at John Paul Jones Arena. “Any time you can play in those big cities — D.C., Philadelphia, New York – that’s good for us.”
The Wahoos’ 2016-17 roster includes freshman De’Andre Hunter, a 6-7 forward from Friends’ Central School in Philadelphia. (Hunter is redshirting this season.) Former UVA players from the Philly area include Matt Blundin, Devin Smith, Jason Cain, Sean Singletary and Sammy Zeglinski.
“That’s always a very good market, and those kids are always tough,” Williford said.
Another focus is south New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, and Williford expects several UVA recruiting targets to be at the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday.
They’ll see a game that matches two of the most highly regarded head coaches in the college game: UVA’s Tony Bennett and Villanova’s Jay Wright.
Wright is in his 16th season with the Wildcats, and in 2015-16 he guided them to the NCAA title. Bennett is in his eighth season with the Cavaliers, who last season advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight for the first time since 1995.
Villanova competes in the Big East, Virginia in the ACC. The Wildcats enter this game- the non-conference finale for both teams – with a 19-2 record. The `Hoos are 16-3.
Virginia, Wright said on the Big East coaches’ teleconference, is “a team that I love to play because I feel they just test you in every way. You’re either going to win the game and realize you’re a really good team or you’re going to lose the game and have any little weakness exposed. I thought our game against Virginia last year was as valuable as any game we played.”
That game was played at JPJ, where UVA won 86-75. That setback did not, obviously, derail the Wildcats, and Sunday’s game figures to be a valuable experience for the Cavaliers, no matter the outcome.
When the teams met at JPJ last season, “there was a March Madness feel to the game,” UVA forward Isaiah Wilkins recalled Friday. “This will probably be a really close game, and we’ll be in [pressure] situations, so you can learn from it, win or lose, and you take it with you.
From its NCAA championship team, Villanova lost several important pieces, most notably point guard Ryan Arcidiacono and big man Daniel Ochefu, but such standouts as Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges returned.
Jenkins, of course, hit the 3-pointer that lifted Villanova to a last-second victory over North Carolina in the NCAA title, and the 6-6, 235-pound senior has continued to fire away from beyond the arc. He’s averaging seven 7-point attempts per game.
Overall, 45 percent of the Wildcats’ field-goal attempts have been from 3-point range.
“Normally, most teams are between 32 and 38 [percent],” Virginia assistant coach Brad Soderberg said. “We’re in the low 30s. So that makes them different.”
A 6-5, 215-pound senior, Hart is one of only three players in Villanova history to total at least 1,600 points, 700 rebounds, 225 assists and 125 steals in his career.
Hart leads Villanova in scoring, at 19 points per game. Also averaging in double figures for the Wildcats are Brunson (14.1 ppg), Jenkins (13.7) and Bridges (10.2).
Villanova is coming off a loss to Marquette, which erased a 17-point deficit and won 74-72 Tuesday night in Milwaukee, Wis.
Virginia also played on the road Tuesday night, defeating No. 14 Notre Dame 71-54 in South Bend, Ind. That improved the Cavaliers’ record to 8-1 in games away from Charlottesville and boosted their confidence as they head to Philly.
“I feel like we’ve been tested,” Wilkins said. “Notre Dame was crazy, and we’ve been in a couple [other] hostile road environments. I just feel like we’ll be able to go in locked-in and prepared.”
BACK TO SOUTH BEND: The women’s basketball team will attempt to do what the men’s team accomplished earlier this week: win at Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion.
At noon Sunday, in a game ESPNU will televise, the UVA women take on the eighth-ranked Fighting Irish (19-3, 7-1 ACC). The Cavaliers (14-6, 3-4 ACC) are coming off an impressive 76-27 win over No. 19 Virginia Tech at John Paul Jones Arena.
Virginia’s ACC losses — to Syracuse, Louisville, North Carolina and Pitt — made its path to the NCAA tournament “a little bit harder,” Boyle said Thursday night, “but there’s a path for us, and we’ve just got to dial in. And if we come out like we did tonight, then you can write your own story. We gotta take care of business. We’re going to face a lot more talented and top-10, top-20 teams, so we’ll have opportunities. But we have to take advantage of them.”
MAKING A SPLASH: The men’s and women’s swimming & diving teams close their ACC regular- season schedules at NC State on Saturday in what figures to be an extremely competitive meet.
The Virginia men, ranked No. 13 nationally, have built momentum with wins against Virginia Tech, Duke and North Carolina. The UVA women, ranked No. 5, are undefeated in dual meets this season (6-0). The Wolfpack are ranked No. 3 on the men’s side and No. 9 on the women’s side. The dual meet begins Saturday at 4 p.m. in Raleigh, and live video will be available.
ON THE MAT: The wrestling team faces NC State at 1 p.m. Sunday at Memorial Gymnasium in one of its two remaining home duals of the season. The match-up with the No. 8 Wolfpack will be available on ACC Network Extra, the ACC’s digital network that launched in July. ACC Network Extra broadcasts are available to authenticated subscribers of ESPN3 through WatchESPN and the ESPN app at no additional charge.
SPRING FORWARD: Women’s tennis was the first of Virginia’s spring sports to begin its competitive season this year. The Cavaliers opened with a 4-3 win over Boston College last weekend.
The Cavaliers host Ole Miss at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Boyd Tinsley Courts at Boar’s Head Sports Club as part of the ITA Weekend Kickoff. UVA will face LSU or Wake Forest on Sunday.
Two weeks from now, the women’s golf, softball, men’s lacrosse, women’s lacrosse, and men’s tennis teams will all be in action. Our weekly Wahoo Central Podcasts will preview the spring sports teams. Head men’s lacrosse coach Lars Tiffany stopped by this week and offered a candid, in-depth update as the Cavaliers work to transition to an up-tempo style of play.
SIGNING DAY: VirginiaSports.com, VirginiaSportsTV.com, and the football program’s social media channels (@UVa_Football on Twitter and at Virginia Football on Facebook) will feature content on UVA’s signees throughout the day on Wednesday, including the first production from the new broadcast studio in JPJ.