The Virginia men’s basketball team’s matchup against Clemson Thursday presents an opportunity to earn two different types of redemption. The Cavaliers will look to avenge the 15-point road loss they suffered to the Tigers earlier this season, and perhaps more importantly, they will attempt to erase memories of Sunday’s stunning collapse against Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Though a win will do nothing to erase those two blemishes from a mostly impressive resume, a victory would set the right tone as the team heads into the second half of its ACC schedule.
The Achilles’ Heel as of late for the Cavaliers (15-6, 5-3 ACC) has been an inability to convert on offense. The team has been plagued all year by lengthy scoring droughts and they still have not found a consistent solution — Sunday saw Virginia suffer yet another offensive breakdown. Coach Tony Bennett’s squad went nine minutes in the second half without making a field goal, watching a 9-point lead become a 5-point deficit. More often than not, the problem has been poor shooting rather than poor shot selection.
“We had a couple forced shots in there, but besides those, the quality of the [looks] as I watched that, I can’t complain about it,” Bennett said. “I thought there were some good looks, again, some offensive rebounds, some point-blank ones that they either made a heck of a block or we just missed.”
For the season, Virginia is fourth in the ACC in field goal shooting at 45.4 percent, yet they are averaging a league-worst 62.5 points per game.
The Virginia freshmen have been counted upon to provide much of the scoring punch — forwards Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey and guard Justin Anderson each rank among the top six on the team in scoring. Breakout games by those freshmen have helped spur each of the team’s last three wins, including a five 3-pointer outburst by Nolte against Virginia Tech, a 14-point second-half performance by Anderson against Boston College and, most recently, a 13-point, seven rebound showing by Tobey against NC State.
Sunday, however, no freshmen stepped up with a star performance in the 66-60 loss to the Yellow Jackets. With Mike Scott taking his refined post offense to the Atlanta Hawks, then-sophomore guard K.T. Harrell and then-freshman forward James Johnson electing to transfer last season and sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon sitting out this season with a foot injury, Bennett does not have the luxury of relying on proven veterans. Instead, he must depend upon the energy of freshmen who are just beginning to prove that they belong in college basketball.
“We count on big contributions out of each one of them,” junior guard Joe Harris said. “If [redshirt freshman guard] Teven [Jones] is only playing a couple minutes or he’s playing 25, we expect the same thing out of him night in and night out. That goes for all of them.”
Thursday evening’s visitors, the Tigers (12-9, 4-5 ACC), bear many similarities to the defensive-minded Cavaliers. Clemson trails only Virginia in the ACC in scoring defense, allowing just 58 points per game, but also ranks next-to-last in scoring offense at 64.4 points per game. The Tigers lead the conference in blocked shots with 107 and play a very physical style of defense, a quality that propelled them to a 59-44 win against the Cavaliers Jan. 12.
In addition, the Clemson duo of senior forwards Milton Jennings and Devin Booker — the younger brother of Washington Wizards forward Trevor Booker — pulverized the Cavaliers inside for a combined 36 points, 20 rebounds and three blocked shots. The Tigers made 10-of-13 second-half field goals and outscored Virginia 35-24 in the period.
“They had a lot of point-blank shots,” Bennett said. “Booker, he’s hard to handle, and Jennings was stretching you from three, so they had you both ways. And again, they were more physical than us and got the ball to the spots they needed.”
Virginia will likely need strong performances from its big men to counter Booker and Jennings. Junior forward Akil Mitchell and Tobey will be key with sophomore forward Darion Atkins still severely limited by a shin injury. Mitchell’s consistency in the post has stabilized Virginia’s front line, and he is averaging 12.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game this season. Tobey, however, followed up his breakout performance against physical NC State with a one-point, two rebound dud against Georgia Tech.
Despite not having Atkins at full strength this time around, the Cavaliers have one clear advantage for Thursday’s rematch against the Tigers: the game will be played in Charlottesville. Virginia has won 12 straight at John Paul Jones, matching an arena record set in 2007. But the Cavaliers have just one in-conference road win, a 74-58 victory in Blacksburg Jan. 24.
“I think you feed off your crowd and the energy it can give you, but the good teams, when you go on the road you can’t rely on those kind of momentum swings, those kind of energy swings from the crowd,” Bennett said. “You’ve got to be able to have that in yourself, manufacture that and be so sound, and that’s what hasn’t happened for us on the road, and it is certainly hard enough at home.”
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.