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Cavaliers set for showdown in South Bend

Notre Dame hosts Virginia for first meeting in 22 years

As the Virginia men’s basketball team enters the thick of conference play, they find themselves in an unfamiliar position. The Cavaliers (15-5, 6-1) are off to their best start to ACC play since 1983 and will face off against Notre Dame Tuesday for just the seventh time in team history.

It is the first meeting since the 1992 NIT finals when the Cavaliers — led by Bryant Stith — defeated Notre Dame (11-9, 2-5) 81-76. The unfamiliarity of Notre Dame as a conference opponent presents a unique challenge to the Cavaliers.

“It will be weird,” senior Akil Mitchell said. “It’s almost like a non-conference game. We have to learn their scouting report all over again, and we only have a day and a half to prepare before we travel up there. It will be different, but it will be exciting at the same time.”

Notre Dame began its first year as a member of the ACC with high expectations, as preseason polls projected the Fighting Irish to finish fifth in the conference. Those expectations took a blow when star senior guard Jerian Grant was forced to leave the team for academic reasons.

In the 12 games prior to his dismissal, Grant averaged 19 points and 6.2 assists per game. Since losing Grant, Notre Dame is 3-5. However, the Fighting Irish — staying true to their name — were competitive in all of their losses during this rough patch, even managing to pull off an upset against No. 7 Duke earlier this month.

“They’ve had to adjust because of the loss [of a] heck of a player,” coach Tony Bennett said. “They’ve been right there. They showed Duke at home and how they’ve played in stretches that they’re very talented.”

The Cavaliers are coming off a trouncing of in-state rival Virginia Tech, in which sophomore Malcolm Brogdon scored a career-high 18 points. Brogdon has had seven straight games in which he has scored in double figures. But Bennett has made a point of not allowing the Cavaliers to get caught up in their recent successes, forcing the team to remain focused on the challenges that lie ahead.

“He tells us to not be put on a pedestal,” sophomore Anthony Gill said. “We were at the beginning of the season, and we got knocked off of that really hard and then again with that loss against Tennessee. We’re just trying to stay focused to be able to go forward and win some big games.”

Given Notre Dame’s style of play, the Cavaliers will have a tough match up on the road. Despite Notre Dame’s mediocre 11-9 record, they have been as tough as anyone in the country, boasting a 10-3 record at home in South Bend. Virginia — having continued its road game struggles from last year — knows it cannot sleep on this potentially dangerous Fighting Irish squad.

“They’re hard to beat at home,” Bennett said. “There’s not [a] big difference in our league [the ACC] between the tops and the bottoms and record-wise, you throw that out because they can play. They pass the ball well, move the ball. It’s a nice team-oriented style of basketball.”

With a win against Notre Dame, the Cavaliers would move 7-1 in conference play, matching the mark set by the 1982 Virginia team led by Ralph Sampson. Tip-off for the game is at 9 p.m. Tuesday in South Bend, Ind.