Virginia Coach Tony Bennett usually tries to avoid his team’s pregame chatter, and “that’s probably a good thing,” he realized this past Tuesday night after his first-ever trip to Notre Dame.
The coaches’ locker room inside Purcell Pavilion shared a wall with the one used by his players and it gave Bennett pause — and perhaps a few more gray hairs. He heard laughter and looseness, and his immediate reaction was to wonder, “Boy, I don’t think we’re ready.”
But after it took the Cavaliers just 10 minutes to build another double-digit lead over an ACC foe, Bennett understood his own assistants had been right: “You just never hear them. They’re always like that.”
Virginia has caught plenty of people off guard over the past month, storming out to the program’s best start in ACC play (16-5, 7-1) in more than 30 years. But one notable obstacle remains unconquered for the Cavaliers, who can finally get over that hump on Super Bowl Sunday when they visit No. 18 Pittsburgh (18-3, 6-2) and the unfriendly confines of Petersen Events Center for the first time.
Bennett and company have yet to beat a ranked team this season, with losses to Virginia Commonwealth and Wisconsin during nonconference play and a 69-65 setback at Duke that represents the team’s lone blemish during this surge through league action.
Virginia, though, is hopeful the raised stakes won’t change the mind-set that has been so successful in recent weeks. As of Saturday afternoon, the Cavaliers trailed only Syracuse in the ACC standings, but Pittsburgh sits just one game behind them in third place.
“Since the Tennessee game [an 87-52 loss on Dec. 30], we’ve been playing all the teams as if they’re ranked,” freshman point guard London Perrantes said. “We’re playing with a lot more confidence now, and Coach Bennett has a lot more confidence in us, too.”
The Panthers, coming off a 80-65 home loss to Duke last week, enter Sunday under similar circumstances. Picked to finish sixth in its first year in the ACC before the season, Pittsburgh has won 18 of its first 21 games, but all three losses have been to opponents that are currently ranked (Syracuse, Duke and Cincinnati). Its best victory is over Stanford, a team currently ranked No. 53 in the Ratings Percentage Index.
Virginia, meanwhile, has ascended all the way to No. 22 in the RPI rankings and a victory in front of the “Oakland Zoo,” Pittsburgh’s rowdy student section, would likely vault the Cavaliers back into the national polls for the first time since the first week of the regular season.
“We’re excited to show what we can do against a team like that, especially on the road,” center Mike Tobey said.
In Pittsburgh, though, Virginia will face a program built on many of the same principles.
Both teams have been exceedingly efficient on the offensive end and are among the top four in the conference in scoring during ACC play, despite being ranked outside the top 315 in the country in terms of possessions per game. The Cavaliers entered the weekend leading the nation in scoring defense and the Panthers weren’t far behind at No. 17.
Each team has also relied on a balanced attack. Sophomore Malcolm Brogdon has led Virginia in scoring in four of the past five games, but he and senior Joe Harris are the only two Cavaliers averaging double figures in scoring.
Pittsburgh features an ACC player of the year candidate in senior Lamar Patterson (17.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game), and how Bennett chooses to defend the 6-foot-5, 227-pound matchup nightmare could dictate Sunday’s game. The Blue Devils limited Patterson to 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting, just two days after he lit up Maryland for 28 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.
The Panthers, though, also allowed Duke to hit 13 three-pointers in an uncharacteristically poor defensive performance. It was their first defeat this season at Petersen Events Center, a place in which Pittsburgh has lost just 23 times in 12 years.
“Whenever the teams from the Big East play the charter members of the ACC, it seems like they’re trying to make a statement, so we’ll have to be ready in a tough venue,” Bennett said.