CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Virginia is treating the ACC tournament as a new season. Why not? After a promising start, the regular season that ended with last Sunday's loss at Florida State -- the Cavaliers' fifth straight -- turned out to be dreadful.
"It's never too late," senior center Elton Brown vowed. "Last year, Maryland made a good run. A lot of people were saying it was too late for them."
Florida State's Anthony Richardson, left, and Virginia's Elton Brown are hoping it's not one-and-done in the ACC tournament's first round, with a shot at a National Invitation Tournament bid still possible.
(Phil Coale -- AP)
The 11th-seeded Cavaliers (13-14, 4-12), who face the sixth-seeded Miami Hurricanes (16-11, 7-9) in a first-round matchup at MCI Center Thursday night, will need to duplicate Maryland's run to the championship to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year.
Even two victories, making them eligible for the National Invitation Tournament , would seem highly improbable. If the Cavaliers manage to get by Miami, they would meet third-seeded Duke (22-5, 11-5) in Friday's quarterfinals.
Yet, in a session with reporters this week, Virginia Coach Pete Gillen and his squad maintained a positive outlook. There has been much speculation that Gillen, after seven years at the helm, will be fired unless the Cavaliers, ranked in the top 25 earlier this season, produce a miraculous finish.
"This team beat Arizona," Gillen said, "and North Carolina State on the road. We've had some good moments."
Miami and Virginia played only once this year, on Jan. 12 in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers, who led by six points at halftime, were outscored 51-34 in the second half of a 91-80 loss. The Cavaliers committed 19 turnovers, and shot 39 percent in the second half compared with 59 percent by the Hurricanes.
"It's a team we should have beat," Brown said, "but we didn't play 40 minutes."
Brown was productive against Miami, finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
Just as importantly, he made 6 of 7 free throws in that game, but overall during the conference season, Brown shot only 50 percent from the line, down from 67 percent last year.
"I don't go up there and try to miss," Brown said. "I practice every day. I'm not going to put my head down. Right now, I'm in a slump. I'll turn it around."
Another player hoping to turn it around is sophomore guard J.R. Reynolds. Reynolds, a member of last year's all-ACC rookie team, has scored in double figures in only two of the last eight games. He had been struggling so much that Gillen started sophomore Gary Forbes ahead of him in the Florida State contest. Against ACC opponents, Reynolds is shooting 31 percent from the field.
"J.R. is a very good player," Gillen said. "He should be shooting the ball better. He's a guy we need to put the ball in the basket. That takes pressure off the inside guys."
Virginia's biggest challenge may be trying to slow down Miami's talented guards, Guillermo Diaz and Robert Hite. In conference play, Diaz has averaged 20.7 points, second behind Duke guard J.J. Redick. Diaz has scored 10 or more points in 25 straight games. Hite has averaged 15.3 points in conference games.
"He's real quick and strong," Virginia freshman guard Sean Singletary said, referring to Diaz. "He's relentless going to the basket."
Miami is also very efficient on the offensive boards, averaging 37.7 overall rebounds against conference opponents.
"Rebounding is going to be big," Brown said. "We can get more physical. Loose balls is the main thing for us."
Looking for positive signs entering the tournament, the Cavaliers point to their second-half comeback against the Seminoles. Down by 20 early in the second half, the Cavaliers pulled to within three with about three minutes left. They lost, 68-63.
"The way we played at the end," Brown said, "that's how we played at the beginning of the year."