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Virginia basketball faces decisive stretch of the season

By Mark Giannotto,

College basketball teams on the NCAA tournament bubble often won’t discuss the endless “are they in or are they out” rhetoric that consumes fans and reporters alike in the lead-up to Selection Sunday. But after Virginia captured its third victory in six days Tuesday, forward Akil Mitchell confided that such talk did not go on deaf ears in the Cavaliers’ locker room earlier this month.

It seems once Virginia lost at Georgia Tech on Feb. 3, the Cavaliers met as a team and came to the same conclusion: “We had to kind of put a run together to have a chance,” Mitchell said.

So far, so good in that regard considering Virginia (18-6, 8-3 ACC) has reeled off seven wins in its past eight games. But the heavy lifting begins in earnest this Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C., when the Cavaliers embark on what will likely become the defining stretch of their regular season.

Three of Virginia’s next four games are against the ACC’s top-tier teams, including contests at North Carolina and No. 3 Miami over the next six days and a matchup with No. 2 Duke at John Paul Jones Arena on Feb 28. With an NCAA tournament profile that has befuddled many observers, the Cavaliers would be wise to win at least one, if not two, of these marquee matchups, and that’s with the assumption Coach Tony Bennett’s crew doesn’t lose another game in which it’s favored.

“We’ve been playing good, but we tend to lose focus,” senior point guard Jontel Evans said, before noting the Cavaliers set out to do the opposite when they bested spiraling Virginia Tech on Tuesday night.

After all, that’s why Virginia finds itself in such unpredictable straits despite having a firm grip on third place in the ACC and a 6-0 record against the RPI top 100. The Cavaliers are No. 19 in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency-adjusted college basketball ratings, but all six of their defeats this season fall under the “bad loss” category. A December setback to Old Dominion, owner of a 3-22 record as of Thursday, will likely go down as the worst loss any bubble team suffers this season.

In light of those blemishes, Bennett said this week he’s “thankful” to even be in consideration for an at-large bid at this point. His players, meanwhile, seem more comfortable with the daily ebbs and flows of being on the bubble in February after dealing with it last year.

“I think the key is really to be resilient,” Bennett said. “Kind of love the challenge, embrace the challenge.”

The Cavaliers currently rank No. 79 in the RPI, according to Jerry Palm of CBSports.com, and 28 of the 74 bracketologists tracked by the Bracket Project’s Bracket Matrix list Virginia in the field as an at-large team.

But NCAA tournament selection committee chairman Mike Bobinski told reporters in a teleconference Wednesday that RPI and nonconference strength of schedule remain as important as ever in the selection process, a caveat that leaves Virginia with some more work to do if it wants to secure back-to-back NCAA tournament berths for the first time since 1994 and 1995.

The Cavaliers played a nonconference schedule ranked No. 314 in the country this season. They lost to Delaware (No. 141 in the RPI) in the preliminary rounds of the NIT Season Tip-off, meaning Virginia missed out on an opportunity to potentially face No. 10 Kansas State, No. 16 Pittsburgh or No. 4 Michigan at Madison Square Garden, and instead played North Texas (No. 256 in the RPI) and Lamar (No. 315) in consolation games at home.

Some Virginia faithful have countered that all three of Virginia’s nonconference losses to Colonial Athletic Association competition (the Cavaliers also lost at George Mason in the season opener) occurred with Evans either out of the lineup or limited by injury. But that argument became a moot point once the Cavaliers lost on the road to Clemson, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech with Evans back in the fold.

That last defeat to the Yellow Jackets, though, prompted a locker room conversation, one that could become the thing of legend if Virginia hears its name called on Selection Sunday.

“That was the last time we talked about it,” Mitchell said. “We knew we could do it. Now it’s just a matter of putting the games together.”

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