When coach Tony Bennett and the Virginia men’s basketball team examined the schedule before this 2012-13 season, the chances are slim that they regarded last Saturday’s visit to North Carolina as the more manageable part of their current two-game road trip. After all, few would even compare the challenge of stealing a game in Chapel Hill from one of the nation’s most prestigious programs to that of winning at Miami, even if the ACC coaches predicted the Hurricanes to finish a respectable fourth in the conference last October.
Four months later, however, No. 2 Miami has yet to drop a conference game while North Carolina clings to NCAA Tournament eligibility hopes. And with Virginia also teetering on the brink of tournament qualification and having already lost to the Tar Heels 93-81 Saturday, Tuesday’s contest in Coral Gables looms as the most daunting task Bennett’s squad has yet faced this season.
So much for the “easy” portion of the road swing.
“I think our team defense has to be at its best,” Bennett said. “If it’s not, it’ll be difficult for us because of their size, their ability.”
Should the Cavaliers (18-7, 8-4 ACC) hope to upset the Hurricanes (21-3, 12-0 ACC) and maintain sole possession of third place in the ACC standings tomorrow night, they will likely need to restore their struggling defense to its former proficiency. After holding its first seven conference opponents under 60 points, Virginia has yielded more than 60 in three of its last five contests, with the nadir undoubtedly occurring Saturday. If the 40 first-half points which North Carolina compiled were uncharacteristic for a Bennett-coached defense to surrender, the 53 in the second half– which 11 teams were unable to muster against Virginia during entire games – were downright alarming. The Tar Heels also shot 13-of-28 from behind the arc and committed just seven turnovers to Virginia’s 14.
“Once they got rolling, we couldn’t stop them,” Bennett said of North Carolina. “…We had a hard time keeping them in front of us. When we turned it over, they got some quick buckets out of that.”
Still, the Cavaliers’ have mitigated the sting of their strangely underwhelming defense of late with equally unusual offensive brilliance. Junior guard Joe Harris has spearheaded the recent surge, averaging 24.0 points on an absurdly efficient 31-of-43 shooting during the past four games and cementing himself as one of the ACC’s most dependable perimeter scoring threats. Bennett contends that Harris’ experience against former Florida guard and current NBA player Bradley Beal in last year’s tournament spurred him to polish his offensive game.
“He had gone against some good players, but I think he realized that there’s another level that he’s got to get to,” Bennett said. “I think he’s worked hard to become better in areas that he was deficient in.”
Harris has undoubtedly highlighted the Virginia offense recently, but the rest of the team is excelling, as well. The Cavaliers have averaged 78.0 points and posted a sizzling 53.2 field goal percentage during that same recent four-game stretch after eclipsing more than 78 points just twice before that. Sophomore guard Paul Jesperson credits improved ball movement as a pivotal factor in the team’s scoring splurge.
“We rely on our defense, but I think offensively guys have been sharing the ball more and I think that has a lot to do with our attitude,” Jesperson said.
Yet concerns linger about whether Virginia is forsaking its defensively-oriented identity for increased scoring. Notorious under Bennett for compelling adversaries to conform to their glacial pace, the Cavaliers have surrendered to a much quicker tempo in the past week-plus and finally paid the piper against the hyper-athletic Tar Heels Saturday. Although Miami plays at a rate much more conducive to Virginia’s usual slow, grinding style, Bennett is stressing to his squad the necessity of balancing offensive production with its hallmark: tenacious, smothering defense.
“I think before [Saturday] we were at a decent pace, taking good shots and playing better defense,” Bennett said. “…Without the depth and where we’re at defensively, we really need to tighten the screws. We probably need to come up with a special performance defensively.”
The Hurricanes have shocked the college basketball world this season thanks largely to their versatile point guard, sophomore Shane Larkin, and the senior trio of guard Durand Scott, forward Kenny Kadji and center Reggie Johnson. Scott, Larkin and Kadji each average just more than 13 points per game to head a balanced scoring attack, with Larkin also registering 4.1 rebounds and a team-leading 4.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game. Meanwhile, Johnson leads Miami with 8.3 boards per contest and poses a massive threat – both literally and figuratively – with his 292-pound frame.
“There’s a lot of matchups that challenge you,” Bennett said. “I think they’re very complete, and they have a good system offensively for them. Obviously, it all starts trying to do a good job at the point of attack with Larkin…but it’s not any one guy versus their guy – it’s got to be our team defense.”
A victory against the No. 2 team in the country, which would count as Bennett’s first against a top-five opponent since arriving in Charlottesville could drastically enhance Virginia’s NCAA Tournament chances. Still, although experts around the country are scrutinizing the Cavaliers as a potential “bubble” team, junior forward Akil Mitchell denies that his teammates are heeding the chatter.
“We don’t pay attention to that stuff at all,” Mitchell said. “We knew after the Georgia Tech game that we would have to put a run together if we wanted to have a chance … it is just the matter of taking one game at a time and playing each game like it’s our last.”
Tipoff is at 9 p.m. ESPNU will broadcast the contest nationally.