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Virginia opens NIT vs. Norfolk State

After NCAA Tournament snub, Cavaliers hope to build momentum for 2013-4

Before the 2012-13 campaign began, ACC-affiliated media picked the Virginia men’s basketball team to finish a distant seventh in the conference standings and well out of the running for a NCAA Tournament berth. The Cavaliers’ top-four ACC finish and reception of a No. 1 seed in the NIT postseason tournament, then, should qualify this season as a pleasantly surprising overachievement for head coach Tony Bennett’s young, slightly undersized roster.

After a demoralizing late-season swoon and a controversial omission from the NCAA Tournament field, however, Virginia and its fans are not celebrating a successful year but struggling with the shocking disappointment of missing out on college basketball’s premier postseason event after the team had ostensibly clinched a tournament spot with a win against Duke Feb. 28. And as the Cavaliers prepare to host in-state nemesis Norfolk State in the NIT’s first round Tuesday night, Bennett must find a way to rejuvenate his slumping squad — and remind them just how far they have exceeded expectations this season even without an NCAA bid.

“Yeah, you’d love to play in the NCAA,” Bennett said. “But the opportunity to play in the NIT, that is, in my opinion, a big time situation for us because it’s hard to get into that even, and it’s a chance for us obviously to continue to play.”

The NCAA Selection Committee spurned Virginia (21-11, 11-7 ACC) despite the Cavaliers’ four victories against the RPI top-50, which matches the combined total of top-50 wins from at-large selections Middle Tennessee State, St. Mary’s and La Salle combined. But Virginia averaged just 53.25 points in regulation while going 1-3 since the Duke game and lost its sterling defensive form in Friday’s 75-56 ACC Tournament quarterfinal loss to NC State, a defeat which likely torpedoed the team’s at-large hopes once and for all.

After thriving as unheralded darlings all year long, the Cavaliers devolved down the stretch into an offensively inept unit with a confounding incapacity to win away from John Paul Jones Arena.

“We didn’t play our best basketball those last four games and that’s what stung,” Bennett said. “Whether you get the wins or not, I just wanted to play a little better.”

The team’s plummeting efficiency from the perimeter, personified by the recent floundering of All-ACC First Team junior guard Joe Harris, implies that fatigue, the pressure of the late-season push for an NCAA Tournament bid, or a combination of the two may have affected the players down the stretch. On pace to finish as Virginia’s all-time most efficient 3-point shooting team after the Duke game, these Cavaliers shot a wretched 18-of-65 from beyond the arc in their final four games. Harris, in particular, has wobbled, shooting 17-of-57 overall from the field in his last four games after building a reputation throughout the season as one of the ACC’s most lethally efficient scorers.

Harris, however, denied that late-season jitters were responsible for Virginia’s shooting percentage nosedive.

“I thought our coaching staff and everybody around us, we did a good job of just focusing in on just the game at hand,” Harris said after the loss to the Wolfpack.

Still, returning to John Paul Jones Arena should supply the Cavaliers with a much-needed spark. After finishing 18-1 in Charlottesville to register the program’s best home record since it went 16-1 in 2006-07, Virginia will play the next three games within the friendly confines of JPJ should the team advance to the quarterfinal round of the NIT. The tournament’s final four remaining teams play the semifinals and finals in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Though the homecourt advantage tilts the odds heavily in favor of Virginia, the Spartans (21-11, 16-0 MEAC) proved just last year that they can prevail as an unsung underdog. Hailing from a small, historically black college with about 6,000 undergraduates, the Norfolk State basketball team stunned the world by beating No. 2 seed Missouri 86-84 in last year’s NCAA Tournament.

Like the Cavaliers, however, the Spartans are smarting from their failure to return to the “Big Dance” after squandering an undefeated conference regular-season with a 63-61 loss to Bethune-Cookman in the MEAC quarterfinals. The first-place regular season finish assured them of a spot in the NIT.

Junior guard Pendarvis Williams, who scored 20 points in the triumph against Missouri last March, spearheads a balanced Norfolk State attack with 14.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Although this year’s Spartans lack the offensive ammunition of the 2012 Cinderellas and have outscored opponents by an average margin of just one point, they do possess a postseason pedigree and the ninth best 3-point percentage defense in the nation — two qualities that could pose problems for a young roster currently scuffling from the perimeter.

If nothing else, Bennett hopes his team can cobble together a solid NIT run and obtain invaluable experience for next March, when they hope they’ll be back in the postseason tournament they came so agonizingly close to reaching this year.

“We didn’t fare well, and now we have another chance to be in a one-and-done setting and try to fare better,” Bennett said. “I think any time you can put your young players or your returners in those situations that they play in that tournament setting, that is very positive for next year.”

Tipoff is at 9 p.m. ESPNU will broadcast the game nationally.


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