CHARLOTTESVILLE — Kihei Clark had dribbled across half court toward the visiting bench during last Saturday’s home game against Miami when he lost control of the ball without much resistance.
It was the second of six turnovers for the Virginia freshman starting in place of injured point guard Ty Jerome. And for a team that values ball possession more than any other in college basketball, it was a sign of concern.
"I would like to have more assists than turnovers of course,” said Clark, who also had six assists in the Cavaliers’ 56-46 win over the visiting Hurricanes, “but [we have to] move on to the next game and prepare for Duke.”
It’s unclear if Jerome will play Saturday in No. 3 Virginia’s highly anticipated rematch with the No. 2 Blue Devils at John Paul Jones Arena, with the winner assured of emerging from the weekend at least in a tie for the lead in the ACC standings. Coach Tony Bennett said Jerome, who has a sore back, is day-to-day.
The Cavaliers have committed 30 turnovers over the last two games, including matching a season high with 16 in a 66-65 overtime win at North Carolina State on Jan. 29. Jerome injured his back early against the Wolfpack, and the following game against Miami was the first the junior had missed in his college career.
"I don’t know what to attribute it to,” said junior guard Kyle Guy, the Cavaliers’ second-leading scorer at 14.5 points per game. “I think being a little bit more focused, a little bit more laser-focused, will help.”
Virginia (20-1, 8-1) still commits the fewest turnovers per game (9.0) of any Division I team, but that number is up by more than half a turnover since the last two games. The effect is amplified because the Cavaliers average only 59.7 possessions per 40 minutes -- the most deliberate tempo in the nation, according to KenPom.com.
"We talk about soundness,” Bennett said. “We work really hard in practice doing sureness drills. You just keep working at it. Again, there’s a level of soundness without being passive, and you’ve still got to make plays when people pressure you.”
The Cavaliers had gone five consecutive games with fewer than 10 turnovers, including a season-low two against Notre Dame on Jan. 26, before facing N.C. State.
The Wolfpack converted 17 points off turnovers in playing Virginia closer than any opponent this season, save for Duke (20-2, 8-1), which won the first meeting against the Cavaliers, 72-70, at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 19.
In that game, Virginia committed eight turnovers that yielded nine points for the Blue Devils, who played without starting point guard Tre Jones. The standout freshman sat out two games with a shoulder injury but has played in the last four, all victories by an average of 22.5 points.
Clark was the only Virginia player to have multiple turnovers in the first game against the Blue Devils, and he’s likely to have Jones, perhaps Duke’s best on-ball defender, guarding him frequently on Saturday if Jerome is out.
The Blue Devils average 10.4 steals per game, third in the nation.
“Just making the simple play, setting my feet, and I’ll get better at it for sure,” Clark said of developing his ballhanding acumen this week, which has consisted of four practices after having off Sunday and Monday.
"I feel like we’ve been grinding a lot lately,” said Virginia center Jack Salt, a redshirt senior. “We did a lot of things that were uncharacteristic [against N.C. State and Miami]. We definitely need some time to focus and get back on track.”
It is uncertain how much, if at all, Jerome has practiced this week, but Bennett confirmed the ACC’s No. 3 leader in assists (5.0 per game) tweaked his back early against the Wolfpack. He managed to play 41 out of 45 minutes but committed four turnovers, matching the team high for the game.
Jerome was among the steadiest players on the court for the Cavaliers in the first game against Duke, finishing with 14 points and a game-high four assists with one turnover.
In last season’s 65-63 win at Cameron, Jerome stole an inbounds pass late that led to his three-pointer in helping seal Virginia’s first triumph at the storied arena since 1995, a span of 18 straight games.
"Ty I think is improving,” Bennett said on Monday afternoon. “Of course he’s been very faithful to his treatments and all of that stuff, and I think it’s going in the right direction, but we’ll have to see once we get on the floor and what he’s allowed to do and how he’s feeling.”
The Blue Devils, meantime, are coming off an 80-55 win against Boston College on Tuesday night, getting 16 points, 17 rebounds, four steals, three blocks and three assists in 33 minutes from freshman sensation Zion Williamson, the projected top overall selection in June’s NBA draft.
RJ Barrett, another freshman, leads the ACC in scoring (23.0 points per game) for the conference’s No. 2 scoring offense (87.0).
“I think when we played Duke the first time, they obviously do such a good job at creating off the dribble and using their spacing, and then when they get to the rim they certainly can make plays,” Bennett said, referring to the Blue Devils’ 46 points in the paint. “You’ve just got to be as good as you can on the ball.”