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NCAA Tournament: Virginia prepares for athletic Memphis

Dynamic Tiger backcourt provides challenge for Virginia's Perrantes in Sunday matchup

The No. 1 seed Virginia men’s basketball team just scraped by in their opening round game of the NCAA tournament, beating No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina 70-59 in an 11-point game that felt nothing like an 11-point game. The Cavaliers will have little time to dwell on the game, though, as they face No. 8 seed Memphis Sunday.

“You say, ‘Listen, the intense level you played at, your third game after back-to-back games against Duke [in the ACC Tournament], you’ve got to treat this game the same,’” coach Tony Bennett said. “You have to that level of tenacity, whether you’re sore, tired, whatever. That’s neck-up stuff. That’s the mental toughness that you need. We’ve got to have a sharp practice out here. … The fact that they did that for three games in a row, or at least that third day, I’d say, indicates that they can do it again.”

Memphis, apart from being a quick turnaround, provides a stylistic class for Virginia. The Tigers like to run and score quickly, and their 77.5 points per game rank 35th in the nation. Senior guards Joe Jackson and Michael Dixon Jr. provide a potent scoring backcourt, leading the team in scoring at 14.3 and 12.0 points per game, respectively.

Virginia’s play is predicated on their defense, and the Cavaliers will look to slow down the Tiger attack. Bennett says the game provides a good challenge for the team.

“Any time you play a team that has the ability to score the points in transition and the way they score in the point and their quickness, it tests what you try to take away on a game by game basis,” Bennett said. “And so you got to be as ready for it as you can. You know what you have to do. Can you execute it? You might not do it perfectly every possession, but you better do it the majority of the possessions.”

Facing a talented backcourt, Virginia will have to rely heavily on freshman point London Perrantes to perform well. Perrantes has been impressive all season, posting one of the best assist to turnover ratios in the ACC. Against Jackson and Dixon, he will have his hands full.

“He did a great job [against Coastal Carolina]], really got us going when we were struggle,” Bennett said. “But your point guard, guards are real important because he’ll, if we match him up on Johnson, whoever is going to be our team against a guy like that, but he’s so quick. He’s maybe the quickest we’ve gone against. … So your ability to try to stay down and keep him in front, make him shoot the shots, relying on the help but handling the ball because of the pressure you face, all those things is, a lot’s required and we’re going to need one of his best performances or one of his most steady performances.”

Despite Memphis’ quickness, Bennett made sure to point out that his team could match up to the Tigers.

“I think athleticism, how you define it is it strength, is it power, skill,” Bennett said. “There’s different ways to define it. Do they have more team speed than us and do we have a guy as quick as some of their guards? Perhaps not. But I think we have some decent athleticism in our own ways.”

Virginia will also have to focus on cutting down points in transition, as Memphis will look to run against the Cavalier defense if possible. Bennett’s team would always prefer to go against a team in the half court, and they think they can prevent Memphis from speeding them up.

“I would say we’re so good because [transition defense is] one of our nonnegotiables as a team, something Coach Bennett really stresses,” senior guard Joe Harris said. “We only send two guys to the glass every time in the offensive glass. It’s consistent amongst the guards. If I don’t shoot the ball, I’m getting back on the flight of the ball. If you’re not getting back on the flight of the ball, that’s a problem.”

No matter what Memphis brings to the game, the Cavaliers know they will have to bring more composure to Sunday’s game than they did Friday night. The NCAA tournament is rarely forgiving, and another night like that against Coastal Carolina could mean the end of the Cavaliers’ season. No matter the stage, the Cavalier players know they have to stay calm.

“Coach Bennett talked about … a reckless abandon that we have to play with,” senior forward Akil Mitchell said. “Everything’s on the line and you can’t let it tense you up. You can’t let it freeze you up, thinking this could be my last game. So you just got to play as free as possible and know that if you lay it on the line, give it everything you have, what happens, happens. You can’t add any extra pressure to yourself because that will just slow you down, tense you up.”