This year’s Virginia men’s basketball team shares some undeniable similarities with last year’s NCAA tournament squad, as the midpoint in college basketball season approaches.
Through Jan. 22, 2011, the Mike Scott-led Cavaliers held an identical 2-2 ACC record to this season’s team.
The 2011 team also had a signature win in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge — shutting down Michigan in Charlottesville, whereas the 2012 squad knocked off the Wisconsin Buzzcuts on the road. Both teams also suffered at least one puzzling non-conference loss.
But the comparison diverges there. Last year’s team boasted a 15-3 record, with losses against Texas Christian University, Duke and Virginia Tech at this point in the season. The TCU game, though not a pretty outcome, may have merely reflected the players’ distraction from competing in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Duke barely escaped with its win despite hosting Virginia at its notoriously hostile home court. The Cavalier’s most disappointing loss was a two-point home defeat against Virginia Tech that saw Virginia shoot just 32.6 percent from the field and fail to score 50 points. One very respectable loss, one so-so loss and one ugly one.
This year? All five losses have been ugly. Virginia dropped two of its first three to George Mason and Delaware, then inexplicably lost during winter break to an Old Dominion team that has won just one other game all season. Then, after opening ACC play with a win against the always vaunted Tar Heels, Virginia shot a combined 35.9 percent en route to dropping consecutive games at Wake Forest and Clemson.
The two-game ACC skid undoubtedly hurts the most — not only were both winnable games, but they hurt Virginia’s chances of achieving a high seed in the ACC Tournament and squandered nearly every drop of the momentum gained by beating North Carolina to open conference play. The unavoidable fact is that Virginia could be 17-0 and getting national love, just as last year’s team could have been 17-1, or even 18-0.
A Sporting News article published Jan. 8, the day before the Wake Forest loss, recognized the Cavaliers as in the hunt for the No. 2 seed in the ACC Tournament. That seems an untenable position now. Not only has Miami risen in the conference to challenge Duke for supremacy, but Virginia has failed to capitalize on the article’s basic premise — that a favorable conference schedule would help propel the Cavaliers to a top seed.
As Sporting News’ Ryan Fagan said, “The opening of the Cavaliers’ ACC slate set up perfectly. Of their first nine games, they play the three best teams at home — UNC, Florida State and N.C. State… and have road contests against teams picked in the bottom half of the league — Wake Forest, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.”
Virginia burned most or all of its ACC wiggle room with N.C. State, Duke, Miami and a double dose of Maryland still left on the schedule. The Cavaliers also once again face a front court injury that has left the them dangerously thin in the post.
Last year, 7-foot center Assane Sene fractured his ankle; this year, Darion Atkins is the post player lost to injury, as a “stress reaction” in his leg has led coach Tony Bennett to shut down the sophomore indefinitely. Atkins’ injury has pulled freshman Evan Nolte — who was already a slight bit of a tweener — out of his role as an excellent bench contributor and thrust him into the starting lineup. Virginia now features a three-man post rotation for the second-straight season.
This year, freshman Mike Tobey fills the role that Atkins filled last year. The newcomer from New York has had flashes of talent but is clearly still adjusting to the college game, and Cavalier fans only hope the switch flicks on sooner rather than later.
Tobey isn’t the only freshman who needs to acclimate quickly, though. The loss of sophomore Malcolm Brogdon for the season could prove to be a major stumbling point for Virginia this season unless freshman Justin Anderson continues to improve. The wing is struggling to find his shooting stroke but has displayed athleticism in bunches while contributing on the glass and defensively. If Anderson’s shots start to fall, he could be the bench scorer that Bennett has been searching for the last two years.
Ultimately, this year’s young Virginia team may be similar to last year’s NCAA one — but in the wrong way. The injuries and the losses to beatable teams seemingly predict a similar result to last season’s: a disappointing exit from the ACC Tournament and a tenuous wait to see if the Cavaliers will join the Big Dance. As of Tuesday, ESPN’s resident “bracketologist,” Joe Lunardi, projected a field that did not include the Cavaliers.
Making the NCAA Tournament isn’t an impossible goal this season — which is a mini-victory for a team many preseason pundits billed as rebuilding. But with the toughest stretch of schedule still to come, Virginia needs to get over the injury bug and stop dropping winnable games if it wants to punch a dance card come March.