ORLANDO — London Perrantes sat in front of his locker in the Virginia locker room Wednesday afternoon with a wry smile on his face. He is the Cavaliers’ leader — their captain, their point guard, their top scorer — the guy his teammates look to when things get difficult.
He has played in nine NCAA tournament games — three as a freshman, two as a sophomore and four as a junior. At 22 and as the team’s only senior, he is the wise old man in a locker room full of underclassmen.
“Haven’t brought it up at all,” he said, answering a question about whether he had talked to his younger teammates about what to expect Thursday, when the Cavaliers play UNC Wilmington in a first-round East Region game at Amway Center. “I mean, they know what it’s about. They’ve watched the tournament all their lives. I want to keep it low key. Just go out and play.”
Low key — that’s Perrantes. His teammates call him “Cali-cool,” a reference to his Los Angeles upbringing and his calm demeanor.
“He leads by example most of the time,” freshman Ty Jerome said. “Every once in a while, he’ll get vocal when something’s really important. Most of the time, though, he’s Cali-cool.”
Watching the NCAA tournament on TV is a lot different from playing in it. What’s more, Coach Tony Bennett and his players know that the Seahawks, champions of the Colonial Athletic Association, are one of those double-digits seeds (No. 12 to U-Va.’s No. 5) that people see as a potential upset pick.
Bennett takes it for granted that the game will be a struggle for his team. A year ago, the Cavaliers looked like they were on their way to their first Final Four since 1984 when they led Syracuse by 16 midway through the second half in the Elite Eight, only to succumb to the Orange. Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey all graduated from that team, leaving Perrantes to lead a young team — not a John Calipari-Mike Krzyzewski young team filled with NBA lottery picks but a young team filled with players trying to learn Bennett’s pack-line defense.
“We knew there were going to be dips this season,” Perrantes said. “We had them, and we had some major ups, too. The key is to get the job done now because now is when it matters most.”
The fact that the Cavaliers are 22-10 and a No. 5 seed after losing those three players is a tribute to how far Bennett has brought the program since arriving from Washington State eight seasons ago. No one looks forward to playing Virginia because they know the game will be a grind. Virginia averages 65 points but gives up only 59.
UNC Wilmington is exactly the opposite. Coach Kevin Keatts’s team averages a little more than 85 points (and gives up about 75). The Cavaliers know that the Seahawks (29-5) will push the ball every chance they get and attack the basket whenever they can find an opening.
“We’ve talked a lot about transition defense since Sunday night,” Virginia freshman guard Kyle Guy said. He smiled. “Of course, we talk about transition defense before every game we play.”
Perhaps no one does a better job converting from offense to defense than Virginia. Keatts is fully aware of that.
“We have to play defense if we’re going to play with this team,” he said. “We give them a chance, and they’ll run. And if we don’t play defense and we’re taking the ball out of the basket a lot, then we have no chance to push the ball.”
This is the lowest Virginia has been seeded in the past four years, which isn’t really a surprise to anyone. “We’re a different team this year,” Bennett said. “We have less experience. We have guys with great experience; London’s going into his fourth tournament, and [we have] other guys that have played in this, but we’re just a different team.”
That difference has manifested in an inconsistency that goes against what the Cavaliers have been in the recent past. In February, they suffered their first four-game losing streak since Bennett’s first season, including an embarrassing 65-41 loss at North Carolina. In two of the four losses they failed to score 50 points. In another they scored 55, and in the fourth they scored 78 points at Virginia Tech — in double overtime. That loss, in which they missed several free throws that could have iced the game and had to witness a court-storming, started the losing streak.
But they bounced back to win four in a row, including a cathartic 53-43 win over North Carolina, before losing to Notre Dame in the second round of the ACC tournament.
The second North Carolina game was one of those nights when Perrantes’s Cali-cool was replaced by a more verbal approach. “It was pretty obvious that night how much he wanted to win,” Guy said with a grin. “We all understood.”
Bennett will hope that his younger players won’t wilt in the spotlight against a UNC Wilmington team that gave Duke all it wanted in the first round of the tournament a year ago. Bennett has reminded them of how close that game was and that most of the key Seahawks, including leading scorer C.J. Bryce and three fifth-year seniors, are back.
Bennett is also hoping that he can get a close to 100 percent performance from Isaiah Wilkins, who has been battling strep throat and a virus for the past three weeks. Wilkins, who is Virginia’s best defensive player, was able to play a total of only 30 minutes in the Cavaliers’ two games in Brooklyn this past weekend and hasn’t practiced all week.
“I’ve been resting since we got back from New York,” Wilkins said before practice on Wednesday. “Today, I’m going to work out a little bit when we go in there and see how I’m feeling, and it will probably be a game-time decision.”
Because of the way it plays, Virginia rarely has much margin for error. How much Wilkins can produce almost certainly will be critical. So will the Cavaliers’ ability to break UNC Wilmington’s constant pressure and attack the press to get as many easy baskets as possible.
In the end, though, the game is likely to be decided by which team keeps its cool under pressure in the final few minutes. UNC Wilmington is vastly more experienced than the Cavaliers. But Bennett has Cali-cool on his side.
“When you get on the floor, seeds don’t come into play,” Perrantes said. “It’s just two teams looking to advance.
“I think if we’re prepared, we’ll be fine, but we know it’s not going to come easy. I think we’re ready for a fight.”
Which is what the NCAA tournament is all about — a fight. Perrantes knows he doesn’t have to tell his teammates that. They understand they need to be prepared and ready. And cool.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.