With placement in the ACC Tournament looming large in the minds of basketball fans across the conference, the Virginia men's basketball team travels to Atlanta today to face Georgia Tech in the second game of the year between both teams.
The Cavaliers (13-13, 4-8 ACC) won 72-64 in Charlottesville earlier this year in a game that saw senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan post an ACC career-high 23 points and the team drain 10 shots from beyond the arc. After such a stellar shooting performance by Virginia - and such a disappointing defensive performance by the Yellow Jackets (11-15, 3-9 ACC) - long-time Georgia Tech head man and 2001 ACC Coach of the Year, Paul Hewitt, expressed frustration at his team's porous perimeter defense.\n"You just have to make [the] effort to get out there and be there on the catch," Hewitt said in a teleconference Monday. "Some of the threes [Virginia] got up in Charlottesville were the drive-and-kick variety, and then quite frankly, they just made some tough shots."
Yet despite the promise that the young Cavalier squad showed during that home game, both teams have had precious few successes since. Georgia Tech has dropped six of its last seven games, while Virginia similarly has struggled to a 2-5 record in its last seven, including an embarrassing loss to Wake Forest that gave the Demon Deacons their sole conference win this season. If the overall records do not fully indicate both teams' recent disappointments, Georgia Tech sophomore forward Brian Oliver, who ranked third on the team in rebounds and scoring, will miss his fifth consecutive game Wednesday with a thumb injury. Hewitt stressed the significance of the loss by recognizing Oliver for his two-way talents.
"He's a threat offensively; he's had some big three point shooting games for us, but also has a presence around the basket," Hewitt said. "When I look at the loss of Brian Oliver, initially I'd think we'd miss him from an offensive perspective, but I didn't realize we'd miss him so much on the boards."\nGiven Cavalier coach Tony Bennett's emphasis on defense, one of the game's central story lines will be the performance of the Virginia pack-line defense against the dominating play of Georgia Tech's standout junior guard, Iman Shumpert. Leading the team in scoring and rebounding with 17.3 points and 6.2 boards per game, respectively, Shumpert is the undisputed top dog when Georgia Tech hits the hardwood.
"[Shumpert] leads us in every category, shooting and boards, and we rely very, very heavily on him," Hewitt said. "People have always known that he's a big-time defender, but he's rebounding the ball better than I expected."
Despite the difficulty of containing a star like Shumpert, Virginia's defense has been one of the bright spots of the Cavalier squad and appears to be up to the task - particularly after a rousing 61-54 home win against in-state rival Virginia Tech this past Saturday.
"We all believe in what [Bennett] says," freshman guard Joe Harris said. "He believes in the defensive end, and that's what we take a lot of pride in."
Although the Cavaliers have not posted a stellar record of late, the motivation from completing the sweep of the Hokies Saturday has many believing that all is not lost this season.
"I thought we defended really well [against Virginia Tech], [we] kind of forced them to play a half court game, and we were moving it a lot more," Harris said. "Going to Georgia Tech ... we're going to start preparing to do the same thing."
With four ACC games remaining for Virginia - and for Georgia Tech - wins late in the conference schedule will be critical in determining seeding for the ACC Tournament in March. In his final season at Virginia, senior guard Mustapha Farrakan is determined to leave everything out on the court, and he knows that even an invitation to the NCAA Tournament is still within reach for the Cavaliers via the conference tournament.
"You just don't relax this time of year," Farrakhan said. "A lot of teams want to put their head down and relax, but we just keep working hard and let the chips fall where they may"