Moment of truth
On a night when the No. 12 Virginia men’s basketball team made the Hurricanes’ play resemble a brisk wind, picking up its 12th consecutive victory and program-record 15th ACC win, the story wasn’t about the Cavaliers’ 65-40 decimation of Miami.
Nor was it about coach Tony Bennett becoming just the seventh coach in team history to amass 100 wins at Virginia, and in just his fifth season — even legendary coach Terry Holland took six to reach that same total.
No, after downplaying the matchup for weeks, the time had finally come for Bennett and the Cavaliers to address No. 4 Syracuse’s impending visit to Charlottesville just three days away.
Even Bennett’s son, Eli, had the Orange on his mind while his dad drove him to John Paul Jones Arena Wednesday night.
“He starts this little chant, ’Cuse, ’Cuse, ’Cuse,’” Bennett said. “I was a little mad at first, then I said, ‘All right, he’s only 11, I should give him a break.’”
No other game during Bennett’s tenure at Virginia has drawn this magnitude of interest at both the local and national level. Even before then-No. 3 Duke came to town last year and Joe Harris exploded for 36 points to upset the Blue Devils, there was merely a hope among fans, but not an expectation of a victory.
But the expectations have risen with the Cavaliers’ play. Mix in Senior Day, a shot at Virginia’s first ACC regular season title since sharing it with North Carolina in 2007 and Dick Vitale on the call for ESPN, and it’s easy to see why the majority of questions after the Miami win centered around Syracuse instead.
Understandably, Bennett did not want his team to overlook any opponent when every ACC game is a potential trap game — see: Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. But once the final buzzer sounded, the coach acknowledged that the game was shaping up to be one of the most special he has ever been a part of as a head coach.
“When I was at Washington State, we played UCLA for a conference championship in the Pac-10 when they had gone to three straight Final Fours; that was very special,” Bennett said. “Certainly this will be a special one, so those would be the two in my time.”
For Bennett and his seniors, the day will carry an even greater significance. Akil Mitchell and Harris are the only two players remaining from Bennett’s inaugural “Six Shooters” recruiting class, and Thomas Rogers, a former walk-on, showed such dedication to the program in his first three years that Bennett rewarded him with a scholarship last spring.
“It’s a dream come true to have it go down this way,” Mitchell said. “We all came in as freshman wanting to build a special program, but I don’t think any of us saw it coming this far.”
However, the Cavaliers’ leading rebounder tried to shrug off any suggestions that Saturday might be too emotional. After all the pregame festivities conclude, it’s strictly business.
“I had a Senior Night in high school too,” Mitchell said. “The stage is a little bigger, but once that ball is tapped, it’s just basketball — everything clears itself up.”
It’s not quite “just basketball.”
It’s a battle for ACC supremacy between a conference newcomer and a charter member that could have a profound impact on both teams’ momentum heading into the postseason.
It’s a matchup between two slow, but devastatingly efficient teams.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s infamous 2-3 zone defense has made the Orange the second-ranked ACC defense in efficiency during conference play at 98.0 points per 100 possessions. The most efficient? Bennett’s pack-line — the Cavaliers forfeit just 90.1 points per 100 possessions, the seventh-most efficient defense in the country.
Virginia and Syracuse are virtually as efficient on offense as well, ranking second and third in the conference at 111.7 and 108.6 points per 100 possessions, respectively.
The primary reason for those figures? Freshmen point guards.
Beyond the half-court game-winner Tyler Ennis hit against Pitt, the freshman averages 12.0 points per game and a 3.4 assist-turnover ratio. And though London Perrantes may not have started out as fast as Ennis or received the same level of attention nationally, he’s certainly learned quickly on the job.
The Cavalier point guard is 12th nationally with a 3.7 assist-turnover ratio and second in league play with a 5.2 mark, becoming so thrifty with the ball that reporters joked after the Miami game that Bennett should make him run for turning the ball over once — the same night that he shot 5-of-5 from the floor, including a career-best four 3-pointers.
“They both seem unflappable,” Bennett said. “They let the game come and don’t get sped up in their mind or on the floor. Ennis is a heck of a player, but I think our point guard is a heck of a player too.”
The waiting is over, March 1 is finally here. By approximately 6 p.m. Harris, Mitchell and Rogers will have played their final home game at John Paul Jones Arena, many across nation will have had their first look at Virginia basketball, and the ACC regular season champion may be decided.
The matchup even had Miami coach Jim Larrañaga excited after the game Wednesday night.
“You have got to love the ACC,” Larrañaga said. “You have Virginia hosting Syracuse, battling for the regular season title. It has been a while since U.Va. has been in this opportunity.”