What a difference a week makes.
The Virginia men’s basketball team headed to NC State on February 25 having lost four straight games, something that had not happened since Tony Bennett’s first season in Charlottesville. To make matters worse, Virginia’s offense struggled mightily in each of the three previous games — losses to Duke (55 points scored), North Carolina (41 points scored), and Miami (48 points scored in an overtime game) — leading up to the matchup in Raleigh.
Four days of rest following the Miami game helped and the Hoos rebounded with a 70-55 win at NC State. Virginia shot 48.9% from the field against the Wolfpack, including 11-of-16 from beyond the arc. UVA then defeated UNC, 53-43, at John Paul Jones Arena last Monday before closing out the regular season with a 67-42 blowout win over Pittsburgh. Staying hot from beyond the arc, Virginia made 10-of-24 against the Heels and 11-of-22 against the Panthers.
“I think we’re playing a little more free now. We’re not passing up open shots,” freshman point guard Ty Jerome said of the offensive turnaround. “Just take good shots, play free.”
Bennett noted that the team made a concerted effort several weeks ago to become better defensively. His players responded and the Pack Line defense has been working at a high level the past six games.
“I think the slump helped us,” senior point guard London Perrantes said following the Pittsburgh game. “We were not making shots, so we knew that we had to be good on the defensive end to even be a part of this game, or for it even to be close. Now we are hitting shots and still playing good defense. We knew that the shots were going to come, but now our defense has to be here for the rest of the season.”
“Our mindset is most important,” Jerome said. “We come out and we know who we are now. We know we have to defend.”
Added redshirt sophomore center Jack Salt: “[The coaches have] just been really clear on defensive assignments. We know what we’re doing on screens, if we’re trapping or if we’re not trapping. The coaches have just been really clear on what we need to do.”
Three wins in a week’s time has the Hoos confident once again. Team leaders Perrantes, junior Isaiah Wilkins, and redshirt junior Devon Hall steadied the team. Others followed their lead, kept working, and kept composed. A strong mindset is there and will be important heading into the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
“Losing sucks, but we just had to keep our head up. We knew we were going to bounce back and we did,” Salt said.
“We just have to keep a good head set and keep going. Hard work, it starts there,” he added.
Jerome, who along with fellow freshmen Kyle Guy and Mamadi Diakite have played key roles for the Cavaliers, is excited to take the court in the second round of the 2017 ACC Tournament. UVA, the No. 6 seed, will face the winner of Georgia Tech/Pittsburgh tomorrow night at 9 p.m. at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
“I’m going to try not to be too anxious, but I’ve been dreaming about March my whole life. So, I’m ready,” Jerome said.
UVA’s Path To The ACC Championship
The Cavaliers defeated Georgia Tech by 13 at JPJ and split with Pittsburgh, which captured an overtime victory over UVA at home before last Saturday’s defeat.
An overachieving Georgia Tech team is in the “Bubble” conversation for the NCAA tournament. However, the Yellow Jackets faded in the final two weeks, losing three of four, including a 29-point drubbing at Syracuse last Saturday. Georgia Tech is not good on the road (2-10) and has had no neutral site games.
Pittsburgh went just 4-14 in conference regular season play and won only one conference road game. The Panthers won two road games in total all season long but did capture two neutral site matchups in four tries. Seniors Jamel Artis and Michael Young highlight a potentially explosive offensive team. When hot, Pitt can play with anybody. Virginia knows this well. However, Artis and Young were suspended for 10 minutes in the regular season finale, not exactly a great sign at this point in the season.
(UPDATE: Pittsburgh defeated Georgia Tech, 61-59, to advance to the second round.)
Assuming UVA plays well, I expect the Hoos to advance to a meeting with Notre Dame in the quarterfinals. Virginia has won 10 straight against Notre Dame, including all five meetings since the Irish joined the ACC. The Cavaliers defeated Mike Brey’s squad by 17 in South Bend earlier this year.
Notre Dame has experience, good offense, good leadership, and is 7-6 in games away from home. While UVA has owned this series as of late, I would expect this matchup to be a close one. Still, I think the Cavaliers have a good shot to reach the ACC Tourney semifinals or better.
Florida State, Virginia Tech, or Wake Forest would await Virginia if the Hoos get past GT/Pitt and Notre Dame. UVA defeated Wake at home in their only matchup of the season, split with Tech, and lost by 2 points at home to Florida State thanks to a last second 3 from Dwayne Bacon.
Virginia won the ACC Tournament title in 2014 but has lost to UNC each of the past two years, bowing out in the 2015 semifinals and losing in the championship game last season. Winning three straight, especially a victory over the ACC regular season champion Tar Heels, gives the Wahoos momentum heading into this week. The Cavaliers have had success on the road (7-5) as well as in neutral settings (2-0). This team does have a thin margin for error, but if the defense continues to be right, though, the Cavaliers have a very real shot to continue its streak of reach of the ACC Tournament semifinals or better.