“They’re just playing at an unbelievably high level,” Coach Mark Turgeon said on a teleconference Sunday. “They’re so good on the defensive end and so unselfish on the offensive end. . . . I do think this is the best defensive team we’ll play so far.”
In this way, Virginia has blossomed into everything Turgeon has hoped Maryland could become, an unselfish group playing hard-nosed defense and disciplined offense. No Cavaliers player scores more than 12.1 points per game. Their defensive efficiency ranks second nationally, according to analyst Ken Pomeroy. Their motion system grinds opponents down, though an influx of health has allowed Coach Tony Bennett to open things up more. The result? An average victory margin of 13.4 points since their last loss, to Duke on Jan. 13.
The Terps, meanwhile, have won three of four, including an 83-71 slugfest
against the Seminoles in which Allen dropped 32 points. But their résumé still lacks the boost necessary to avoid a fourth straight season without an NCAA tournament appearance. That’s where road opportunities like this come in, though the overall toughness of Maryland’s next month makes it somewhat of a double-edged sword.
“We’re becoming a better basketball team, much more sound,” Turgeon said. “Are we where we need to be? No, but hopefully we can improve between now and tomorrow night and play better than we did Saturday. Yesterday was a big game. You look at our schedule, it’s tough the rest of the way.”
But after losing to North Carolina on the road, avenging a 24-point loss to Florida State was exactly what Turgeon and his players needed. Virginia, meanwhile, has begun to experience life near the conference’s summit, receiving an opponent’s best shot on any particular night. That’s why a game-ending 22-1 run at Georgia Tech this weekend was so important. Senior Akil Mitchell said the Cavaliers have “a bull’s-eye on our back,” but instead of buckling they returned fire and rose up.
“This year we understand we can’t get complacent and we have to provide our own energy based off what we did last year,” Mitchell said after the 64-45 win. “I think it’s kind of starting to translate. . . . We’re having fun, we’re enjoying the game and this team has a little bit of a swagger going, and we’ve got to keep it up.”
Summoning enough energy might be the most challenging part. Only guard Malcolm Brogdon played more than 30 minutes for Virginia, but Maryland needed at least 33 minutes from Layman, Allen and Dez Wells to hang on. With so little time, recovery treatment takes top priority. After that, Turgeon said, it’s a matter of both teams rolling out their best stuff and hoping it works.
“Nothing’s new at this point,” Brogdon said. “There’s no new philosophy you’re going to develop in two days. It’s just resting your bodies, resting your mind and then coming in fresh and establishing yourself at the beginning of the game.”
Mark Giannotto contributed to this report.