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Cavs rule home court

Ask most fans and analysts what ACC college basketball venue features the most intimidating crowd atmosphere, and “Cameron Indoor Stadium” usually rolls off the tongue. Duke, who will visit Charlottesville for a clash with Virginia Thursday evening, undoubtedly owes some of its perennial college basketball preeminence to the luxury of playing at Cameron Indoor, where the 10,000-seat capacity and noisy acoustics enable raucous partisan crowds to inundate opposing players with earsplitting jeers and cheers. Comparing any other arena in the nation, much less the ACC, to Duke’s famous home digs more often than not invites skepticism and scorn.

But in 2013, one ACC team is thriving at home to a degree even Blue Devils fans must respect. The stadium? A seven-year-old, 15,000-seat facility by the name of John Paul Jones Arena, where coach Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers have won 15 straight contests — with all but three of those triumphs featuring double-digit margins.

Fittingly, Virginia will play its first sold-out contest at “JPJ” Thursday against the program that personifies home-court advantage.

“It’s going to be bananas in here,” senior point guard Jontel Evans said. “Electric, crazy, any adjective you can find, that’s what it’s going to be.”

Often lauded for its state-of-the-art amenities and dual function as an enjoyable concert venue, John Paul Jones Arena — named neither for the iconic American naval hero nor the Led Zeppelin bassist but for the father of a wealthy donor — has never played host to such sublime basketball from its men’s team since opening for the 2006-07 season. Virginia compiled a respectable 63-31 record at home since that season, with Bennett posting a 35-15 mark since arriving in Charlottesville in 2009.

Yet, the Cavaliers have never dispatched their opponents as decisively as this season with the backing of its partisan crowd. The squad is thrashing opponents by an average of 18.7 points and holding adversaries from the offensively-oriented ACC to an absurdly meager 49.1 points per game. Most astoundingly of all though, Virginia is steamrolling visiting foes at such a record rate during a season in which the school has toiled to boost the lowest average attendance in the arena’s seven-year history. With just 9,182 patrons per game, the Cavaliers have drawn inspiration for their scintillating home performances from a modestly sized but rowdy core of spirited fans.

“It gives us a lot of confidence,” Evans said. “Our fans are like the sixth man out there.”

While disclaiming he still needed to analyze Virginia’s play on film, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski — whose 440-58 home record as the Blue Devils’ coach implies a degree of wisdom on the subject — conjectured that Bennett has constructed his squad in a manner which galvanizes home crowds.

“Your fans would really love a team the way that Tony put his team together,” Krzyzewski said. “So they’re going to have even a little bit more confidence [at home].”

For all that home excellence, however, Virginia remains on the fringe of NCAA Tournament qualification thanks to an uninspiring record away from the comforts of JPJ. The Cavaliers are just 3-7 outside of Charlottesville, including a neutral-court loss to lowly Old Dominion. When the setting shifts, the elite defensive discipline and prolific outside shooting which fuel Virginia’s home play too often dissipate, as the recent two-game road losing streak against North Carolina and Miami exhibited.

The drastic discrepancy between Virginia’s home and road play could stem partly from the five inexperienced, impressionable first-year players who regularly participate in Bennett’s rotation — freshmen Justin Anderson, Evan Nolte, Mike Tobey and Taylor Barnette and redshirt freshman Teven Jones. Blessed with significant playing time in their debut seasons, the quintet has shot 46 percent at John Paul Jones Arena but just 41.8 percent elsewhere. Compare that to junior guard and seasoned starter Joe Harris, who is shooting just two percentage points lower and actually averages three more points — 18.6 to 15.5 — per game away from home.

Krzyzewski said the JPJ support and stabilizing influence of upperclassmen leaders such as Evans and Harris likely has a disproportionately positive effect on the Cavaliers’ young guns.

“The younger you are, it helps you a bit more,” Krzyzewski said.

That Virginia thrives much more at home than on the road hardly represents a unique phenomenon though. Combined, the five teams with winning records in ACC play so far this season have dropped a total of three games at home this season. NC State and North Carolina both fell to No. 5 Miami at home, while the Cavaliers faltered 59-53 against CAA also-ran Delaware Nov. 13. Rather than receiving some special boost from the John Paul Jones fans, Virginia may just be exemplifying a trend sweeping across the conference and the country: it’s simply getting harder to beat a competitive team on the road these days.

Still, fans and players who have experienced the JPJ atmosphere this season have consistently lauded the crowd for offering a pivotal, tangible advantage to Virginia.

“It’s the fans,” Evans said. “When we’re in a slump, they just rev it up and get loud out of nowhere and it just raises our level of play.”

And though they may not yet wield the influence associated with the “Cameron Crazies,” the JPJ faithful — in abundant numbers, this time — may at long last spur Bennett and Virginia to their 16th consecutive home victory against Duke Thursday.

“It’s nice to see that the crowd’s really rallying behind these guys,” Bennett said. “It has to make a difference, without a doubt.”