March 7, 2018
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Among the banners hanging inside the HSS Training Center, where the University of Virginia men’s basketball team practiced Wednesday, are two commemorating the ABA championships won by the Julius Erving-led New York Nets (1973-74 and 1975-76).
Another banner recognizes the Eastern Conference crowns captured by the franchise, then known as the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, won in 2001-02 and 2002-03.
Championships are the goal this time of year in hoops. At John Paul Jones Arena last weekend, in celebration of its third ACC regular-season title in five years, UVA added 2018 to a banner honoring those feats.
The nation’s top-ranked team, Virginia hopes to be crowned twice more by season’s end, at the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
First things first. For UVA, the No. 1 seed in the ACC tourney, the postseason starts Thursday. In the first ACC quarterfinal at Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets, Virginia (28-2) meets No. 9 seed Louisville (20-12) at noon.
The Cardinals ousted eighth-seeded Florida State 82-74 in a second-round game Wednesday afternoon.
The NCAA tournament field will be announced Sunday night, and UVA is likely to be the No. 1 overall seed. For now, though, the Wahoos are concerned only with what happens in Brooklyn.
“It’s one goal at a time,” sophomore guard Ty Jerome, who played his high school ball at Iona Prep, about 25 miles from Barclays Center.
“In the regular season, our whole focus was on the regular season. Now that’s over. Now our whole focus is on Thursday. That’s all you can control [for now]. It’s just one step at a time.”
Some ACC head coaches attach more importance than others to the conference tournament. After his team practiced Wednesday at the Nets’ facility near New York Harbor, UVA’s Tony Bennett discussed his philosophy.
“I think the regular-season conference [race] is a big thing,” said Bennett, who’s in his ninth season at Virginia. “The ACC tournament is a big deal. They’re both big deals, and of course the NCAA tournament is a big deal.
“Any time you have an opportunity to try to win a championship, that’s a big deal.”
As one of the top four seeds in the ACC tournament, Virginia earned a double bye. The 15-team tourney started Tuesday with three games and continued with four more Wednesday.
When it resumes Thursday afternoon, the first game will match two teams that know each other well. UVA and Louisville met twice during the regular season, with Bennett’s squad prevailing each time.
The ‘Hoos defeated the Cardinals 74-64 at JPJ on Jan. 31 and 67-66 at the KFC Yum! Center last Thursday night. In the game at Louisville, Virginia scored five points in the final nine-tenths of a second to stun the Cards, the last three coming on a bank shot by redshirt freshman De’Andre Hunter.
“It was a prayer,” David Padgett, Louisville’s interim head coach, said afterward. “It was a prayer from 30 feet.”
A win over UVA that night almost certainly would have secured an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament for Louisville. Still, Padgett said after the Cards’ win Wednesday, his team hasn’t been obsessed with avenging that loss.
“We haven’t talked about it, to be honest,” Padgett said. “The reason we’re happy to get [UVA again] is because it’s a chance to beat the No. 1 team in the country and a team that has played well all year long.
“Look, last Thursday was tough, there’s no denying that, but we haven’t said, ‘Well, we’ve got to beat Florida State so we can get to Virginia.’ No, we just said, ‘We’ve got to beat Florida State so we can move on.’ Virginia is going to be ready for us, as they have been all year, and we just have to come out and just leave it all out on the court.”
Junior forward Deng Adel, who had a critical turnover against UVA in the final second last week, said the Cardinals are focused on “getting another win. We’re on the bubble of the [NCAA] tournament, so our biggest thing is getting a win, and no matter who’s standing in our way, we’re going to find a way.”
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, are looking to win the ACC tournament for the third time in program history and first time since 2014, when they defeated Florida State, Pittsburgh and Duke at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum.
Virginia was seeded No. 6 at last year’s ACC tournament. UVA beat Pitt in the second round but then lost to third-seeded Notre Dame in the quarterfinals at Barclays Center.
The Fighting Irish “punched us in the mouth,” Jerome said, a third-team All-ACC selection, Monday at JPJ. “We still have that taste from Brooklyn, so we want to go in there and make up for that.”
As a freshman, Jerome said, he learned “how you get every team’s best shot in the postseason, no matter who you are, and especially this year we’re going to get every team’s best shot. We’ve been getting it all season, so we’ve got to really be ready to play.”
Senior forward Isaiah Wilkins, the ACC’s defensive player of the year, said the Cavaliers “know that if we don’t come out and play the way we’re supposed to play, anything can happen from there.”
Hunter, the ACC’s sixth man of the year, watched the Cavaliers’ ACC and NCAA tournament games from the bench while redshirting last season. He’s received advice from his more experienced teammates heading into his postseason debut.
“Just treat it like any other game,” Hunter said. “I know it’ll be kind of a different atmosphere, and the games mean a lot more, but it’s just playing basketball at the end of the day.
“Watching last year, it seemed fun. I wanted to really be out there, but this year I’ll get the chance to, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Before practice Wednesday, Bennett gathered his players together and challenged them to compete with an underdog’s mentality in Brooklyn. Their stellar regular-season showing — the Cavaliers became the first team in ACC history to win 17 league games — put them “in the best place possible heading into this tournament,” Bennett said later, “but when you get into tournament play anything can happen and you’ve got to tighten things up.
“It’s nice to have the double bye, it’s nice to have an extra day to kind of prepare and hopefully be rested, but once it’s tipped up, it kind of goes out the window. It’s about how you’re playing.”