There was a time this season – a long one, in fact – when the Virginia men’s basketball team was fully confident of its chances of earning the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2007.
But that time most certainly had ended by Friday evening, at which point Virginia had lost, 67-64, to North Carolina State in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. With roughly 48 hours remaining until the announcement of the field of 68, the Cavaliers appeared apprehensive, rather than excited, about learning their postseason fate.
“I hope so,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said when asked whether he felt his team deserved to play in the NCAA tournament. “The selection committee will decide. You know, I think it’s good for the league to get as many teams as we can in there. We’ll see.”
Then it was fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott’s turn to offer a response: “I’ve never been to the tournament, so I’m just hoping they put us in there.”
The Cavaliers (22-9) had a chance Friday to secure their spot in the NCAA tournament. Instead, they allowed N.C. State to shoot 54 percent from the field and made numerous questionable decisions on offense in the closing minutes.
Interestingly enough, losing to N.C. State on Friday wasn’t as bad a blow as it may have seemed on the surface. With the win, the Wolfpack moved into the top 50 in the RPI, and that makes the Cavaliers’ one-point victory Jan. 28 at N.C. State a bit more noteworthy. Virginia now owns two top-50 RPI wins on the season.
Confused? You’re not alone.
“Everybody’s telling us we’re in,” sophomore forward Akil Mitchell said. “I think Coach Bennett is really confident that we’re in. I don’t really know what to make of it because it literally changes every second. I’m not really sure. I think I’m confident that we’re in, but I’m not too sure either way.”
This is what it’s come to for the Cavaliers. They think they’re confident. Should be a fun wait for them until Sunday evening..
1) Rebounding. Back on Jan. 28, N.C. State outrebounded Virginia, 42-25, and owned a 17-7 advantage in second-chance points. On Friday, the Cavaliers limited N.C. State’s production on the offensive glass more effectively. The Wolfpack tallied one offensive rebound before halftime, at which point Virginia owned a 17-11 edge on the boards. Mitchell – who recorded one rebound the last time these two teams met – grabbed six rebounds in the first half to pace the Cavaliers. Virginia ended the game with a 35-28 rebounding edge, including a 16-8 advantage on the offensive boards. The Cavaliers outscored N.C. State in second-chance points, 13-7.
2) Akil Mitchell. The sophomore forward made all four of his field goal attempts and finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds for his first career double-double. He tallied the first two “and-one” baskets of his career in the first half. Perhaps as important as anything else for the injury-depleted Cavaliers, Mitchell stayed out of foul trouble and logged a career-high 38 minutes. His five offensive rebounds were a game high.
3) Free throw shooting. The Cavaliers entered the night averaging 13.4 free throw attempts per game in conference play. Getting to the line against ACC opponents hadn’t exactly been a strength of Virginia’s this season. But on Friday, the Cavaliers attempted 20 free throws and made 16. Virginia shot 10 for 11 from the free throw line in a second half in which the Cavaliers never trailed by double digits. Meantime, N.C. State struggled to put Virginia away in large part because it couldn’t get to the free throw line in the second half – and the Wolfpack couldn’t make its shots once it got to the charity stripe. N.C. State made 3 of 6 free throws after the intermission and 5 of 15 on the day.
1) Second-half offense. After shooting 52 percent from the field in the first half, Virginia shot 35.7 percent in the second. The Cavaliers’ season-long struggles from behind the three-point arc continued, as well. They made 1 of 7 three-point attempts in the second half and 2 of 12 on the day. There were times, particularly down the stretch, in which the Cavaliers offense just seemed disjointed. Some credit goes to N.C. State’s defense, but some of the wounds were self-inflicted.
Take Virginia’s final possession, for example. Trailing by three, the Cavaliers ran a play they call “ear,” which calls for Scott to set a flat ball screen for junior guard Jontel Evans. Meantime, fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski and sophomore guard Joe Harris head to the corners and are the two targeted options, depending on which side of the court Evans heads toward. Evans also has Scott – who rolls off the screen – as an option. But on this particular possession, the play dissolved and Mitchell ended up with the ball. Mitchell got it to Harris, who attempted a three-pointer from the wing. It bounced off the front of the rim.
2) Decision-making. When Bennett references in the opening comments of his post-game news conference his desire to “look at the film and see if we used our head enough,” that’s typically not a good sign. Virginia tallied eight turnovers in the first half. With 0.4 seconds remaining in the first half and Virginia ahead by one, a miscommunication prevented the Cavaliers from switching defensive assignments off a ball screen and led to Zeglinski fouling N.C. State forward Scott Wood on a three-point attempt. The shot went in, which wasn’t a surprise considering Wood was the ACC’s most accurate three-point shooter this season. And Wood’s ensuing free throw went in, too, which also wasn’t a surprise considering he shot 91.9 percent from the foul line this season.
With 1:41 to play in the game and Virginia trailing by three, Evans had the ball on the wing with plenty of time left on the shot clock and fired a three-point attempt. Evans, mind you, attempted all of 12 three-pointers during the entire regular season. That probably wasn’t the look Bennett was hoping for on that possession. The shot fell errant. Afterward, Evans said he was open and had room and rhythm. But in retrospect, he acknowledged that might not have been the best option at that point in the game.
“With the time that we had, I probably should have done a one-dribble pull-up or just bring it back out and get it to another shooter,” Evans said.
This is not to say Zeglinski and Evans were the only two Cavaliers to make questionable decisions Friday. Rather, it’s just a sample of an issue that plagued Virginia all game long.
3) Fatigue. None of the players felt this was an issue. Bennett said he didn’t think it was an issue. The Cavaliers had an extra day of rest. They hadn’t played since Sunday. There were numerous play stoppages in the second half, because of media and team-initiated timeouts.
Still, one has to wonder whether any sort of cumulative effect to all the minutes Virginia’s starters have logged in the past two months is settling in. Because of injury and attrition, the Cavaliers are well accustomed by now to operating with a limited rotation.
But in the three games since Virginia last had the services of freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon* – the team’s top reserve – four of the Cavaliers’ five starters averaged more than 35 minutes per contest. That includes an overtime period Virginia played Sunday at Maryland. During that span, the Cavaliers’ two available scholarship reserve players combined to tally two points.
* Brogdon missed those games with an injured left foot. He underwent corrective surgery Wednesday and will sit out the rest of the season.
Virginia allowed three opponents this season to shoot better than 50 percent from the field, and two of those occasions occurred in the past three games, including Friday’s loss.
On Friday, N.C. State’s two reserves combined to tally nine points and four rebounds in 37 minutes. Virginia’s two reserves – both of whom are freshmen – combined to register no points and no rebounds in 13 minutes. Not a single Virginia starter logged fewer than 34 minutes Friday.
“I don’t think any of us are going to use that as an excuse, like, fatigue or anything like that,” Harris said. “I honestly don’t feel like fatigue was an issue at the end of the game. This was a big game for both teams, and there was a lot of adrenaline pumping through us. There might have been stretches where guys were tired, but down the stretch, I feel like everybody was zoned in and fatigue really wasn’t an issue.”