The Virginia basketball team’s run to No. 1 in the national polls sowed its roots in Brooklyn early this season. The Hoos hope a season’s worth of tests that grew those roots into one of the nation’s strongest teams have prepared them for the return trip this week at the ACC Tournament.
During Thanksgiving week, the Cavaliers captured the NIT Season Tipoff Championship with wins against Vanderbilt and Rhode Island. They went on to add the outright ACC Regular Season Championship and compiled a 28-2 record overall along the way. That included a 17-1 run through the conference as well.
Still, there’s not much focus on the familiarity of the Barclays Center or the bright lights of New York.
”Nothing changes. We just get focused on what we can do for each game or each practice,” UVA’s Mamadi Diakite said. ”That’s really what we’re concerned about, how we’re going to get ready and what’s next. We don’t really worry about what’s in Brooklyn. A court is a court. It’s a court that’s different than a college court because it’s an NBA court so it’s obviously [reputed], but we don’t really worry about that. We just make sure we’re locked in and have our blinders on to get the job done.”
One thing, however, is very different with the calendar closer to St. Patrick’s Day than Thanksgiving. Back then, the Hoos started that week in the “others receiving votes” category of the week three polls. Now, UVA enters the postseason as the unanimous No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll. Players like fifth-year year senior Nigel Johnson know that makes this conference tournament different than any time before in their careers.
Opponents are willing to sling even more arrows at such a big target. That’s totally different from being an underdog trying to make a run in the postseason.
”What I think will be different is we’re going into the tournament obviously with a target on our back being the No. 1 team in the ACC and the country,” Johnson said. ”Everybody is coming out to try to get a win against us.”
Of course, the ACC is not full of pushover teams anyway. As many as eight to 10 teams could land in the NCAA Tournament field when the brackets are revealed on Sunday. That means when Virginia gets its conference tourney started against the Florida State and Louisville winner at noon Thursday, it will be facing strong competition. Just three games separated teams three through 11 in the final league standings.
In the end, 12 of 15 teams in the conference finished with winning records overall this season.
”The ACC is always tough,” UVA’s Jack Salt said. ”This year, you’ve got the team in the middle that could be anywhere really because there’s so many close games with us and all the teams really. It doesn’t matter who you’re going up against, everyone is going to give you your best shot and every game is going to be hard and fought out.”
Long story short, the Hoos don’t see their change in status as a reason to make changes elsewhere. Working defensively, taking good shots, and sharing the workload all still apply as postseason play begins. That was the team’s focus during a short practice Monday and it will stay that way in the days ahead. That’s what got them to this lofty status in the first place.
”We really just go about our business,” Johnson said. ”It doesn’t really change anything. We prepare the same way either way. Whether we win a game or lose a game, the next game we’re going to prepare the same way and we’re going to go out and execute the same things. Coach Bennett – we do everything the same way every time. We don’t really switch it up. So I feel like regardless of what position we would be in, we’d go out and try to play the same way.”
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When Nigel Johnson became the first graduate transfer of the Tony Bennett era, long-time Virginia fans immediately tried to figure out if a one-year run in the program would work, particularly with the Pack-Line defense and Bennett’s execution demands.
Johnson felt confident entering the season that he could pick up the defense after spending time in two programs previously at Kansas State and Rutgers. After going through the regular season, practices, and repeated film work, Johnson said Monday that he appreciates all the finer points that go into the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense.
”Very minor details play a big part in it,” Johnson said. ”It could be the littlest thing that you would think that makes the biggest difference in the possession. It’s a possession by possession defense. Every possession is very important. Very minor details, there’s a lot of those.”
Johnson carved out a role as a guard sub this season and logged 17.1 minutes per game. He’s averaged 4.9 points with 48 assists and 22 steals. Bennett said that Johnson did a nice job adjusting to UVA’s program and that he’s thankful the senior is here. Virginia’s coach also said that he appreciated the unique challenge that Johnson faced coming into a program for one season with unknown expectations for his role.
”When you come into a program that has many guys that have been here for five years, four years, three years, it’s an adjustment to say hey I’m not an outsider. I’m not just a renter or a guest at this place, I’m an owner in this. That’s been a progression,” Bennett said. ”I’m sure coming in he might have thought it was going to be maybe a little different, maybe he’d step right in for London [Perrantes and] none of that’s promised. He’s played a role that’s been very important for us. I get that it’s probably not been easy. … He’s shown up, he’s worked hard, and he’s played. Even how he handled the three-game suspension and came back, he’s just worked. He’s willing to do whatever it takes for us.”
Hard To Ignore
UVA finished the regular season with a pair of intriguing games against Louisville and Notre Dame, the first for its ending and the second for the return of Bonzie Colson. The day in between the two proved extremely interesting after how the game with the Cardinals ended.
The Cavaliers, of course, rallied from a four-point deficit in the final second with a pair of free throws, a critical Louisville turnover that followed a Virginia lane violation, and a banked-in 3-pointer that gave the Hoos the win. De’Andre Hunter’s buzzer-beater got wall to wall coverage on television throughout the next 24 hours.
Redshirt senior Devon Hall said it was tough to avoid the hype surrounding that finish, but the team turned the page quickly especially when the coaches reminded them that the Thursday-Saturday turnaround mirrored what the team might face in the NCAA Tournament.
”You see it everywhere and on ESPN,” Hall said. ”I mean every time you turn the TV on. I remember sitting with a friend watching and I changed it to the next channel just to try to get away from it and it comes on again. Once you put that behind you, we learned from it watching defensive clips. Other than that, I put it behind me once we started to prepare for Notre Dame.”