CHARLOTTESVILLE — Overcome with emotion, Virginia men’s basketball player Isaiah Wilkins wiped away tears and waved goodbye to supporters who had remained in the stands last weekend following the regular season finale for the starting forward and his fellow seniors.
Wilkins spoke glowingly about how much he enjoyed playing at John Paul Jones Arena for four seasons, but he wasn’t about to dwell on nostalgia. It didn’t take long at all, in fact, for Wilkins to begin looking ahead to the next assignment this week when the top-ranked Cavaliers head to Brooklyn seeking an ACC tournament championship.
Virginia (28-2) is the No. 1 seed and plays its opener Thursday afternoon in the quarterfinals against the winner of Wednesday’s game between No. 8 seed Florida State and ninth-seeded Louisville. The Cavaliers went a combined 3-0 against those opponents during the regular season.
“I think we have to have like a full reset,” Wilkins said. “There’s a chapter, and then you close it, and you’ve just got to be extra prepared. Still play free and things like that, but I think the way we’ve prepared up to this point has been good, from the summertime until now, so it’s just time to lock in. You’ve got to give a little bit more.”
The freshly minted ACC defensive player of the year has done so for his entire career at Virginia, even helping to put the finishing touches on the Cavaliers’ most recent victory, a 62-57 win over Notre Dame, by forcing a shot-clock violation against the Fighting Irish in the closing minute.
Thus Virginia brings a five-game winning streak to Barclays Center after claiming the top seed weeks ago in the midst of a record-setting regular season.
The Cavaliers became the first program to win 17 ACC games in a single season and to go 9-0 on the road in a conference that, according to CBSSports.com bracket specialist Jerry Palm, is third in the Rating Percentage Index.
Virginia’s last road triumph came Thursday and produced one of the most thrilling conclusions to any college basketball game this season. Trailing Louisville by four with 0.9 seconds left in the second half, Virginia scored the final five points unanswered, including De’Andre Hunter’s three-pointer off the glass at the buzzer, for a 67-66 road win.
The improbable finish, players said, was a fitting way to welcome college basketball’s most compelling month.
“I think it’s important just not to overcomplicate things,” said sophomore point guard Ty Jerome, the Cavaliers’ third-leading scorer. “We’ve been working all year, trying to get better every [game], and we just keep doing that. We control everything we can control.”
Unlike some other notable programs in the ACC this season, including Notre Dame, Clemson, Miami and Georgia Tech, the Cavaliers enter the postseason having avoided major injuries.
Virginia has not had a player miss a game because of injury or illness, but it did receive a scare Saturday when starting sophomore guard Kyle Guy collided with Notre Dame forward Martinas Geben.
Guy was running to get around a Geben screen late in the first half and hit knee-to-knee with the senior listed at 6-foot-10, 252 pounds, immediately collapsing onto the court clutching his left leg. The Virginia medical staff assisted Guy to the locker room, where he received treatment. He came back to the bench to watch the rest of the first half.
Guy reentered the game in the second half, missing both of his field goal attempts while wearing a brace on his left knee.
Subsequent tests revealed Guy had a sprained medial collateral ligament, but he indicated Monday that he expects to be in the lineup for the Cavaliers’ ACC tournament opener.
“It hurts like hell, but I should be good to go on Thursday,” said Guy, who was named all-ACC first team. “Apart from my knee, I feel 100 percent ready to go and ready to go far in the tournament.”
Guy leads Virginia in scoring (13.9 points per game) and three-pointers made, although he finished 0 for 4 from the field against Notre Dame for his first scoreless showing this season. Over the past four games, Guy has scored in double figures once after 11 such performances in a row.
With a longer layoff thanks to a double bye in the ACC tournament, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett was able to give Guy and the rest of the players the day off Sunday and have a light practice Monday before departing for New York the following morning.
Guy looked to be on the mend during Monday’s workout, according to Bennett.
“When you see someone go down and grab their knee like that, the first thing you think of is, ‘Man, I hope their ACL is okay,’ ” Bennett said, referring to the anterior cruciate ligament. “You don’t know, but they checked him at halftime, and as we said, I got the okay he could play, and he looked like he had a brace on it, and I’m sure he was a little sore.
“It was a concern, but I think once he was able to go on the floor and you could see him moving, I think it made everybody feel better.”