CHARLOTTESVILLE — With a 68-44 win over Wake Forest safely in hand midway through the second half Wednesday night, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett began to pull his starters. Such rest was a luxury for the 19th-ranked Cavaliers, who have relied largely on six players for the past three weeks because of injury and attrition.
With such a limited lineup, Bennett said he’s had to become even more adept at gauging his players’ fatigue level and distributing minutes as evenly as possible. Those tasks will be crucial Saturday when the Cavaliers (19-4, 6-3 ACC) take on a fifth-ranked North Carolina squad that operates at a faster tempo than nearly every other team in the country.
The Tar Heels “run as well as anyone in the country,” Bennett said. “They rebound as well as anybody in the country. So the little things will be paramount for us — our ability to have our defense set, our ability to execute block-outs when shots go up, having our guards come back in and rebound, being good with the ball, can’t have high turnovers, get good shots.”
And if, by chance, Virginia’s players get an opportunity to take a breather, that would be advisable, as well. Four Cavaliers are averaging at least 29 minutes per game. In the six contests since senior center Assane Sene went down with an ankle injury, those same four Virginia players — fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski, fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott, sophomore guard Joe Harris and junior guard Jontel Evans — have averaged at least 30.5 minutes per game.
Add in the minutes of sophomore forward Akil Mitchell — Sene’s replacement in the starting lineup — and freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon, the team’s top reserve, and six Cavaliers have accounted for 90.1 percent of the team’s available playing time in the past six games.
“It’s tough at times, but [strength and conditioning coach Mike] Curtis and Coach Bennett really focus on taking care of our bodies and allowing us to take days off when we need it,” Brogdon said. “For the most part, I’ve been able to push through.”
By comparison, one North Carolina player is averaging more than 29 minutes per game, though the Tar Heels (20-4, 7-2) have played with a shorter bench since guard Dexter Strickland suffered a season-ending knee injury Jan. 19. (Reserve guard P.J. Hairston, who’s averaging 13.6 minutes per game, also will miss Saturday’s game with a foot injury.) During North Carolina’s 85-84 loss Wednesday to Duke, five Tar Heels logged at least 33 minutes.
The Cavaliers, meantime, experienced a more leisurely affair against Wake Forest. Scott, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, exited with just less than 13 minutes remaining and did not return. Zeglinski and Harris joined him on the bench a short time later.
“That was great for us,” Harris said. “Maybe we’ll be a little bit fresher going into a North Carolina game where you figure that with that six-man rotation a lot of us are going to be playing a lot of minutes because of the level of competition.”
Only six teams in the nation average more possessions per game than North Carolina (74.5). Whereas the Tar Heels prefer to push the pace, Virginia (60.6 possessions per game) likes to slow things down.
Momentum, then, may lean toward whichever team can most definitively assert its will, and that matter largely will be settled on the boards. North Carolina’s starting lineup includes three players who stand at least 6 feet 8. Virginia’s active roster contains three players taller than 6-6 and none taller than 6-8.
Bennett said the four media timeouts — which typically last between 135 to 150 seconds — per half makes operating with a six-man lineup more tenable, and on Saturday he’ll take those chances to read his players’ faces to determine who needs a longer break.
“It felt good to get some rest [Wednesday], but I’m in pretty good shape,” Scott said. “I don’t mind playing a lot of minutes.”