No. 21 men's basketball opens up ACC Tournament play Wednesday

Cavaliers will play winner of Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh as No. 6 seed


It has been a roller coaster of season for the Virginia men’s basketball team (21-9, 11-7 ACC). Through multiple mid-season struggles, the team struggled to find its identity. Despite these ups and downs, though, the Cavaliers finished their regular season on a three-game win streak and enter the ACC Tournament as one of the most dangerous teams in the field at the No. 6 seed.

“We need everything we can get,” senior guard London Perrantes said. “Having momentum keeps us positive and gets our mind right since that slump kind of messed with us.”

Getting some wins before the ACC Tournament was undoubtedly huge for the Cavaliers’ psyche going forward. Before the win streak, the Cavaliers lost four-straight games — two at home — in a brutal stretch during February. However, with key wins, Virginia now finds itself as a contender, and it will open up play Wednesday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Coach Tony Bennett knows this year’s tournament will be more of an uphill battle for his team than in previous years. During the Cavaliers’ tune-up practice at the Barclay’s Center Monday night, the team got a visit from former Virginia star and current Brooklyn Nets’ player Joe Harris, who won the 2014 ACC Tournament with the Cavaliers. Bennett said he was reminded of when Virginia won the tournament with Harris.

“Just seeing Joe Harris come to the shoot around gave me a great memory of the group that won it — it was a ventured group,” Bennett said. “I’m excited for this group because we had that hard stretch. We got a few wins and we want to take that high level quality into our play.”

Virginia’s renewed momentum is largely due to its discipline on defense. After blowing several second-half leads in February, the Cavaliers allowed an average of 46.7 points per game in its last three victories — rekindling its status as the nation’s top-ranked defensive unit.

“We’ve just been doing a better job [defending] in practice, and because of that we’ve been doing a better job in the game,” junior guard Devon Hall said.

Another key to Virginia’s resurgence has been the elevated play of its freshman guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome — both of whom have seen increased minutes as Bennett has been shuffling lineups around. Guy exploded for 19 and 17 points in recent wins against NC State and North Carolina, respectively, while Jerome dropped 13 points in the final game of the regular season against Pittsburgh. Both freshmen have become key components of Virginia’s backcourt, complimenting Perrantes and Hall in Bennett’s effective four-guard lineup.

“Having four guards allows us to get better ball movement,” Bennett said. “There are four guys on the floor that can potentially stretch it and shoot the three ball — it opens up some things for us. [Jerome] has become a good decision maker and [Guy] can stretch the floor for us.”

Though the Cavaliers have slowly returned to an elite level in the ACC, the sheer depth of the conference this year leaves no room for assumptions in the tournament. Many NCAA Tournament projections have around 10 of the ACC’s 15 teams worthy of bids to the Big Dance. Furthermore, the conference’s top teams have all fallen victim to upsets by the middle-of-the-pack teams — such as Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest — so no team should feel safe about cruising to the finals.

“I’m uncertain going into this because the league is so balanced,” Bennett said. “You look at this league this year top to bottom, and you have to be ready to play from the get-go.”

Virginia’s two possible opponents in the second round are teams they have beaten this season — Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. No. 11 seed Georgia Tech came to Charlottesville in January and fell to the Cavaliers 62-49 after junior guard Marial Shayok dropped a career-high 19 points for Virginia. The Yellow Jackets have kept themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble with a solid defense led by junior center Ben Lammers — the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

Virginia split its two games against Pittsburgh this season. Pittsburgh shot the lights out in the first matchup — dropping 88 points while making over 60 percent of its three-point attempts — to beat the Cavaliers. Antithetically, Virginia stifled the Panthers on its Senior Day — allowing only 42 points while Perrantes dropped 22 to get a season-ending victory.

Virginia will carry its late season-morale into the grind of the ACC Tournament as an unexpected underdog and a potential dark horse. Tipoff for Virginia’s second round matchup is scheduled for 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Barclay’s Center.

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