GREENSBORO, N.C. — Virginia’s Joe Harris can sometimes hear Coach Tony Bennett’s voice in his ear whenever he flips the channel to ESPN, but he still can’t resist it. Though Bennett wants his players to focus on anything but their tenuous status on the NCAA tournament bubble, it’s hard to avoid at this point considering the Cavaliers’ season may come down to one game.
“You’re just very aware of where you stand as far as getting into the tournament and all that,” Harris explained. “We know this is an important game for us.”
No. 4 seed Virginia takes on fifth-seeded North Carolina State in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament Friday afternoon in a game that many believe could determine the Cavaliers’ fate on Selection Sunday. Whether that’s the case will be decided by the NCAA tournament selection committee this weekend, but there’s little doubt Virginia’s resume of impressive wins and baffling losses – it ranks No. 67 in the RPI as of Friday morning, according to CBS Sports — could use a boost.
The talented Wolfpack, which defeated No. 12 seed Virginia Tech in Thursday’s first round, fits the bill in that regard. Though North Carolina State is the lower seed, it will almost certainly go dancing again this year, and a Virginia win away from John Paul Jones Arena might just be what puts the Cavaliers over the top after they followed up a signature win over No. 3 Duke with losses on the road to Boston College and Florida State.
When Virginia and North Carolina State met in Charlottesville on Jan. 29, Virginia escaped with a 58-55 victory. Forward Akil Mitchell and center Mike Tobey combined to score 27 points and grab 19 rebounds, while Harris finished with a team-high 22 points. But the Wolfpack lost point guard Lorenzo Brown early in the first half to a sprained ankle and junior C.J. Leslie played despite the flu.
Brown is healthy again now, and showed off his multi-dimensional skill set against the Hokies. He scored nine points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out 12 assists, all while shutting down ACC player of the year Erick Green. Add in bruising senior Richard Howell – a first team all-ACC selection this year — three-point specialist Scott Wood and freshman T.J. Warren, and it’s easy to see why the Wolfpack were picked to win the ACC this preseason.
As is typical in a game featuring Bennett, pace and defense will be key, because North Carolina State excels in transition. In the first meeting, Virginia shot just 40.7 percent against the Wolfpack, whICH gave up the second-most points per game in the ACC this season. But Leslie noted he didn’t remember much from that first contest except that “We felt like we didn’t play great defense.”
The Cavaliers are thinking along the same lines, especially because Harris has been in a bit of a shooting funk (13 for his last 44) since a 36-point explosion against Duke last month. Virginia scored 14 points off 14 North Carolina State turnovers in January.
“Those games that we lost on the road . . . those close ones, our defense broke down at a crucial point in time in the game,” said Virginia point guard Jontel Evans, who along with Brown was named to the all-ACC defensive team earlier this week. “We just have to play a full 40 minutes of defense.”
Virginia will also have to overcome some ignominious history in recent ACC tournaments. The last time the Cavaliers played at Greensboro Coliseum, they coughed up a 10-point lead in 21 seconds in an implausible loss to Miami. Virginia also hasn’t advanced to the ACC tournament semifinals since 1995.
That was news to several players during Wednesday’s open practice, but then again, their coach doesn’t want them pondering such facts. The Cavaliers already realize their NCAA tournament chances could ride on one game, and Bennett believes it’s counterproductive to bring it up at this juncture.
“If it becomes, ‘We gotta win this game or we gotta win that game,’ if you start getting your eyes too much on that stuff, I think it’ll affect you,” Bennett said. “That’s not our way. Human nature is to be aware of it, but I think then you have to put on blinders.”