After Virginia suffered its first loss of the season against Duke on Jan. 31, Coach Tony Bennett dusted off a favorite expression of his to empower the team. “When you whip a donkey, it kicks. When you kick a thoroughbred, it responds,” he said.
The Cavaliers reacted as a thoroughbred would, with impressive back-to-back wins against North Carolina and Louisville to maintain first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Though the most challenging stretch of the season is behind No. 2 Virginia, what’s next isn’t as certain as it once seemed to be.
The Cavaliers are without star junior guard Justin Anderson, who fractured his finger in the first half against Louisville and is expected to be out four to six weeks. Anderson averages 13.4 points, good for second on the team, and 4.3 rebounds per game. Virginia gets its first taste of life without him on Wednesday, when the Cavaliers (21-1, 9-1 ACC) play at North Carolina State (14-10, 5-6) at 8 p.m.
“They responded and they played for each other,” Bennett said. “That’s our way. We have good individual talent, but I said, ‘When you guys are right and playing for each other, I’ll take you against most anybody.’ ”
After facing three straight top-15 opponents, Virginia has the benefit of a relatively easy schedule in the weeks ahead. For the rest of February, the Cavaliers face no ranked opponents and have just two road games, against N.C. State on Wednesday and Wake Forest on Feb. 25.
The biggest test for the Cavaliers will come in the first week of March, when they play back-to-back games at Louisville and Syracuse to end the regular season. Their lead in the ACC standings is down to a half-game over Notre Dame after the Fighting Irish’s win Tuesday night at Clemson, and if Anderson were in the lineup, they’d be the favorites to repeat as regular season conference champions.
Instead, questions loom about how Virginia will fare without Anderson’s offense. Bennett compared the loss to being on a treadmill and raising the incline: more challenging, but not impossible.
“They’re obviously going to be different,” N.C. State Coach Mark Gottfried said. “I do think their system is much greater than one player. . . . I still think that they’re a potential national championship team.”
Bennett was most encouraged by the North Carolina game Feb. 2 because he thought the Cavaliers were balanced. Four players finished in double figures in points, and three had at least three assists. He saw a similar team effort on the defensive end for most of the game against Louisville.
With Anderson out, junior Evan Nolte, freshman Marial Shayok and redshirt freshman Devon Hall will see more minutes, but the Cavaliers will need the core group of guard Malcolm Brogdon — the team’s leading scorer — point guard London Perrantes, forward Anthony Gill and forward Darion Atkins to pick up the scoring slack.
Bennett has praised his team for having different players step up at different times, as the Cavaliers have had six different leading scorers in games.
“There’s not one person that really does it for us,” Atkins said. “We play together.”
Gill said the Cavaliers’ resilience after the loss to Duke showed the team could handle adversity. Brogdon compared it to a 35-point loss to Tennessee at the end of the nonconference schedule last season and how the Cavaliers responded by winning 16 of their next 17 games. Brogdon said losing to the Blue Devils could be similarly beneficial, motivating the Cavaliers going forward.
Atkins expressed skepticism, hesitant to characterize any loss as “good,” but he said the Cavaliers learned from it.
What lessons they learn and how they respond to this latest loss, their star teammate on the bench until at least the end of the regular season, could define their season.
“Let’s call it what it is,” Bennett said. “You lose that kind of production, and we’ve just got to keep grinding and keep the wheels turning, so to speak. When you lose a player like that, everyone’s going to have an opportunity and is going to have to step up, but it’s going to be a little bit of a stiffer challenge.”