This Virginia men's basketball team is not the same one that beat Virginia Tech in December. That Cavalier team previously had upset No. 15 Minnesota on the road, feeding off the momentum to win 57-54 in Blacksburg. Senior forward Mike Scott piloted the victory with 21 points and 13 rebounds and seemed to be in the midst of a breakout year.
When Virginia hosts Virginia Tech Saturday, the Cavaliers will enter the matchup having dropped five of its last six contests. Scott is now out for the season with an ankle injury, and the team's offensive firepower seems to have left with him - Virginia ranks last in the conference in scoring, averaging 61.8 points per game.
"We're a different team now, with different personnel," coach Tony Bennett said. "They're playing good basketball, so we'll ... hopefully come out and battle, and keep our defense strong, and keep trying to find ways to get the win."
With Scott gone and senior forward Will Sherrill listed as day-to-day, senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan serves as Virginia's lone senior. Farrakhan has adapted to that leadership role and paces the team with an average 13.1 points per game. The guard has been inconsistent, though, and shot just 24 percent - 7-for-29 - from the field during his two most recent games.
"He didn't settle for the three against Florida State - he actually got into the lane, got to the rim, and some of the finishes were in-and-out and he missed some," Bennett said of Farrakhan's recent struggles. "When that happens, you've got to try to create for your teammates more and try to find them some rhythm shots."
As Farrakhan tries to recapture his shooting touch, the offensive load falls on Virginia's underclassmen. Freshman guard Joe Harris scored 10 against Virginia Tech earlier this season and follows Farrakhan with 10.4 points per game. Freshman guard K.T. Harrell has seen fewer minutes lately, but ranks third on the team with an average 9.2 points per game. If Sherrill cannot go Saturday, freshman forward Akil Mitchell will pick up his playing time.
Mitchell is "giving us some good minutes, and without Will Sherrill being able to play, we were down to a seven-man rotation [against Duke]," Bennett said. "That puts him in a spot to learn and grow, and hopefully he'll make the most of this experience."
As the freshmen adjust to ACC defense, the team has sputtered offensively. Virginia has scored fewer than 50 points in each of its last three home games and most recently lost 56-41 to Duke. Since beating Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers have averaged a league-worst 58.2 points per game in conference play.
The Hokies, meanwhile, have moved in the other direction. After losing to Virginia, Virginia Tech has gone 13-3 and found its offensive identity. The team scored 102 points against Georgia Tech Sunday and beat Maryland 91-83 Tuesday. Senior guard Malcolm Delaney posted 33 and 22 points in those respective contests, and leads the Hokies with 19.1 points per game. Senior forward Jeff Allen is also a regular contributor, averaging 13.8 points per game and 10. 2 rebounds.
"Obviously Virginia Tech is a great team, and it'll be another tough ACC game," Harris said. "It'll be a sellout crowd, and there will be a lot of excitement for that game too, but we're going to embrace the challenge."
This may be a different Virginia team, but even its new freshman faces recognize the need to beat an old in-state rival.
"I don't like Virgina Tech already," Mitchell said. "I know a lot of our fans don't, either, and I'm excited to see how much they really don't like them. It's going to be a good one"