Following a 20-point weekend win against Florida State Saturday, the Virginia men’s basketball team travels to Blacksburg Thursday to face rival Virginia Tech. Far more than bragging rights are on the line: A win will put either the Cavaliers or Hokies over .500 in ACC play.
Virginia (12-5, 2-2 ACC) finds itself in a similar situation to the one it faced two weeks ago, when an impressive win against North Carolina raised expectations that the young squad was beginning to turn the corner. Instead, the Cavaliers dropped consecutive road contests to Wake Forest and Clemson. This time, the team hopes its historic win against the Seminoles translates into an encore performance on the road.
To earn a second consecutive win in conference play for the first time this season, Virginia will need to slow down the up-tempo Hokies (11-6, 2-2 ACC), who average 75.5 points per game, good for fourth in the ACC. That challenge begins with shutting down the nation’s top scorer, electric senior guard Erick Green, whose 24.6 points-per-game average is more than seven points higher than the ACC’s next best scorer.
“We just need to try to play as well as we can,” coach Tony Bennett said. “We talk about the things, try to get your defense set and really work and they have a special guard in Green so we’ll have to do our job defensively and be as sound as we can on offense and play the game.”
Green has been held under 20 points only once this season — in a road loss against Brigham Young — and is a threat to score from anywhere on the court, shooting 49.3 percent from the field. Virginia senior point guard Jontel Evans, a member of last year’s ACC All-Defensive Team and currently recovering from a foot injury, will have one of his toughest tests of the year defending Green.
If the Cavaliers can play as well defensively as they did against the Seminoles, even Green’s offensive prowess may not be enough to light up the scoreboard. Virginia held Florida State to a John Paul Jones Arena record-low 36 points, matching the fewest points the team has ever allowed to an ACC opponent. Even All-ACC senior guard Michael Snaer could not crack the Cavalier defense. He scored only nine points as his team made just 1-of-15 3-pointer attempts.
“Everyone knew their personnel, our coaches had us prepared,” junior guard Joe Harris said. “We knew our assignments, everyone did what we talked about in practice, and we just came out and executed defensively.”
On top of its lights-out defense, Virginia had a great game on the other end of the court as well. The team shot 48.9 percent from the field — a drastic improvement from its 35.4 percent average against Clemson — and made 7-of-13 from 3-point range. Harris posted 17 points as he continues to lead the team in scoring at 15.2 points per game, and junior forward Akil Mitchell also reached double-digits, going 6-for-7 from the field with 13 points.
“It was just night and day from the last couple games,” Mitchell said. “Getting back in the gym, everybody’s been working hard. Just working on our shots and getting extra shots in practice is starting to show up and pay off.”
One player who saw his hard work on his shooting touch pay off was freshman guard Justin Anderson, who made 2-of-3 from long range Saturday despite making just four 3-pointers in the season’s first 16 games. Anderson also recorded a season-high three blocks. His inspired play helped spark the Cavaliers on both ends of the court.
“He just brings so much energy when he comes into the game that he gives us a boost,” Evans said. “When he’s playing well, that’s just a bonus.”
Thursday’s game in Blacksburg against a fierce rival may present an added challenge for a Virginia team that has struggled away from Charlottesville. The Cavaliers are just 1-4 on the road this season, with their lone win coming at Wisconsin. For a team that has used five freshmen in a starting role this season, the road environment has seemingly rattled the young team. By contrast, Virginia has lost just once at home this season and has a 17.7 point-per-game differential at John Paul Jones Arena.
Virginia is 81-53 all-time against Virginia Tech in a series that dates back to 1915. The two teams will meet again Feb. 12 in Charlottesville.