Okay, let’s be honest — before the season began, how many of you honestly thought this Virginia team would win seven conference games and earn the No. 8 seed in the ACC tournament? And for all those who raised their hands, how many of you thought those same two marks were attainable on Jan. 10 when it was announced senior forward Mike Scott would miss the remainder of the season due to ankle surgery?
I’m guessing there aren’t too many hands left in the air right now.
Virginia’s regular season concluded Saturday with a 74-60 win at Maryland, and after the rest of the ACC slate wrapped up Sunday it was determined that the Cavaliers had attained the No. 8 seed in the conference tournament and would play ninth-seeded Miami at noon on Thursday. The winner of that game will face top-seeded North Carolina at noon on Friday.
Regardless of how the Cavaliers fare this week in Greensboro, most observers would have to acknowledge that this season’s Virginia squad — despite its various and abundant shortcomings — overachieved. Several examples of the Cavaliers’ maturation were on display Saturday in College Park.
1) Rebounding. In a battle of the boards pitting Assane Sene and Will Sherrill against Jordan Williams — the ACC’s leading rebounder — and Dino Gregory, most league followers would bet on Williams and Gregory roughly 9.5 times* out of 10. On Saturday, those followers would have lost money. In fact, Saturday marked the second time in as many games this season when Virginia outrebounded Maryland. I’m not sure whether that’s more of a tribute to the efforts of guys like Sene and Sherrill or more of an indictment on the efforts of guys like Williams and Gregory. Virginia won the rebounding battle, 32-29, on Saturday. Most impressive was how well the Cavaliers rebounded on the offensive end of the court, where they turned 11 offensive boards into 14 second chance points. Maryland, meantime, managed seven offensive rebounds and six second chance points. Sene and Sherrill combined to tally 14 rebounds, while Williams and Gregory combined to grab nine boards.
* This was not the result of a scientific study. Just thought I’d make that clear.
2) Transition play. Not even two months ago, Virginia routinely was getting pounded in transition defense. The Cavaliers were disorganized, slow to react and porous. On Saturday, Virginia gave up just two fast break points and no points off of its six turnovers. Granted, committing only six turnovers goes a long way toward limiting transition defense situations, but still, improvement has been made in this regard. And the Cavaliers have been more opportunistic in transition offense, as well. They turned 11 Maryland turnovers into 12 points.
3) Sammy Zeglinski. The junior guard had not been shooting well of late. At all. As in, he had shot a combined 4 for 21 from the field in the two games prior to Saturday’s contest at Maryland. Zeglinski said he met late last week with coach Tony Bennett and assistant Ritchie McKay, and together they worked through some mechanical issues that had developed in Zeglinski’s shooting form. Whatever the changes were – Zeglinski declined to reveal them after the game Saturday – they worked. He shot 7 for 11 from the field and made 6 of 7 three-point attempts en route to recording a career-high 25 points. One could argue that Zeglinski creates as much separation coming off a screen to get himself a clean shot as any other player in the conference.
1) Five-minute stretch. Sure, the game was close throughout the first half, but with the exception of one five-minute stretch during the second half, the Cavaliers controlled the game’s proceedings. During that stretch, however, Maryland narrowed what had been a 12-point Virginia lead to five, and it appeared as though the momentum was shifting forcefully in favor of the Terrapins. Given that it was Maryland’s Senior Day and all, it wasn’t difficult to predict a collapse by the visitors and a stirring come-from-behind victory for the home team. But, obviously, that didn’t happen. To Virginia’s credit, the Cavaliers did not fold under the literal and figurative pressure they faced.
2) Off shooting nights for Sherrill and Joe Harris. We’re just being picky at this point. Yeah, Sherrill and Harris shot a combined 3 for 15 (20 percent) from the field Saturday, but with Zeglinski shooting lights out and with Mustapha Farrakhan (6 for 14, 19 points) and Sene (7 for 9, 15 points) chipping in, the offensive struggles of Sherrill and Harris were not felt as acutely as they might have been on other nights.