Coming off a down-to-the-wire win in Blacksburg and heading into the final stretch of the regular season, the No. 25 (AP) Virginia men's basketball team hopes to solidify its NCAA Tournament credentials when it welcomes high-octane No. 7 North Carolina to John Paul Jones Arena Saturday. With three games remaining in the regular season, coach Tony Bennett's players need to avoid stumbling down the stretch to punch the program's first ticket to the "Big Dance" since 2007.
The Cavaliers (21-6, 8-5 ACC) did enhance their prospects for an at-large berth in a gritty, 61-59 road win at Virginia Tech Tuesday night. Like many of Virginia's recent games, the contest against the Hokies (15-13, 4-9 ACC) featured sloppy play on both sides of the ball.
"[Virginia Tech] did a nice job and had some action that we had to adjust to, and I thought our guys adjusted well," Bennett said.
The Cavaliers have had to fight an uphill battle throughout the later part of the season, losing three of their last six match-ups - the first of those losses a 70-52 thumping against North Carolina (24-4, 11-2 ACC).
Starting with senior center Assane Sene's broken ankle earlier this season, a rash of injuries has plagued the squad. Virginia currently has only five healthy players in its rotation, and has two more playing significant minutes despite their ailments. Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon is nursing a sore ankle and sophomore guard Joe Harris is dealing with a broken non-shooting hand.
"Malcolm being injured was tough," Bennett said. "In the Maryland game he injured himself and it just flared up."
Bennett is, however, optimistic Harris will soon return to form as the Cavaliers' most consistent perimeter shooter. Harris has averaged just 3.3 points per game after incurring his injury during the Feb. 11 game against North Carolina.
"You should start to see some of that inflammation going away and the swelling coming down," Bennett said.
As Virginia loses depth, senior forward Mike Scott has gained an even more prominent role, averaging a staggering 27.4 percent of the Cavaliers points this season. Scott also absorbs the majority of defensive attention from opponents, putting the onus on Virginia's supporting cast to alleviate some of the offensive burden.
"Mike's having to work very hard to get good opportunities, and that is to be expected when you're putting up the numbers he's putting up," Bennett said. "He's a focus of a lot of defenses."
Redshirt senior Sammy Zeglinski and junior Jontel Evans elevated their play Tuesday, combining for 26 points on 9 of 13 shooting.
During Saturday's game, Bennett needs to rely even more heavily on Zeglinski to provide a potent three-point threat to space out defenses such as North Carolina's.
The Tar Heels come to Charlottesville having won nine of their last 10 games, with the only loss coming from a buzzer-beater three against Duke, and having scored more than 70 points in 27 consecutive games.
Bolstered by the consistent play of Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes down low, North Carolina is ranked first in the nation with 45.8 rebounds per game and second in the nation with 82.9 points per game. North Carolina is currently tied for the ACC lead with No. 5 Duke and No. 15 Florida State.
During the first match-up at Chapel Hill, an inability to rebound or stop Zeller, who finished with 25 points and 9 rebounds, unravelled Virginia's bid for an upset. The Tar Heels used a 48-31 advantage on the boards to finish with 13 more shots than the Cavaliers, becoming just the second opponent all season to score more than 70 points against Bennett's second-ranked scoring defense.
The friendly confines of John Paul Jones Arena may prove a pivotal factor in Virginia's quest for its first win against North Carolina since 2006. The Cavaliers are 15-1 at home and have allowed more than 60 points just once, in a 65-61 win against Clemson.
Tip-off is 4 p.m. Saturday.