When London Perrantes took a seat to address reporters this week, he provided a sartorial reminder that he helped set the gold standard for the Virginia men’s basketball program under Coach Tony Bennett. Rather than the nondescript puffy coats usually worn for postgame interviews, the point guard sported a red-sleeved Team USA warmup jacket from the Rio Olympics.
The jacket was a sort of reminder: Perrantes knows only winning at Virginia. He helped steer the Cavaliers to two ACC regular season titles and one ACC tournament title in his previous three seasons in Charlottesville. He has played in 103 Cavaliers victories, eight shy of passing Malcolm Brogdon as the program’s all-time winningest player.
These past three weeks, in which the Cavaliers have lost four times in six games, have felt unfamiliar.
“I’m learning,” Perrantes said Wednesday when asked how he was managing. “I’m learning as much as everybody else is.”
The senior point guard has never experienced a three-game losing streak at Virginia; the Cavaliers haven’t had one since February 2011. But that stretch is in danger of snapping Saturday, when No. 14 Virginia (18-7, 8-5 ACC) will face league-leading, 10th-ranked North Carolina (22-5, 10-3) in Chapel Hill, N.C., where the Tar Heels are undefeated this season.
The Cavaliers struggled through three straight road losses in early January of last season. But those were mere missteps. These losses, in comparison, have felt more like the Cavaliers getting knocked around in a boxing ring: Then-No. 1 Villanova struck the first blow with a buzzer-beater in an NCAA tournament-like atmosphere; Syracuse hit Virginia in the gut by rallying from a halftime deficit to beat the Cavaliers for the second straight time; Virginia Tech landed with a basket late in double overtime; and Duke needed just one hot-shooting freshman to knock out Virginia at home.
Perrantes has never been so bruised.
“It’s not something I’m used to, but as a leader of the team, I’ve got to keep my head up, keep my spirits high, because we’ve got games to play,” Perrantes said. “We got another tough one Saturday. Still trying to — not necessarily teach these guys but figure out how we can get the best out of everybody regardless of if they’re not playing well.”
Playing well for a full 40 minutes has evaded the Cavaliers recently. Virginia gave up double-digit leads after halftime in three straight road games before losing to Duke at home on Wednesday. In all four losses, the Cavaliers allowed the opponent to shoot 50 percent or better from the floor in the second half.
On Wednesday, Duke turned 33 percent first-half shooting into 57.1 percent second-half shooting, thanks in large part to Jayson Tatum’s 21 points after intermission. Virginia, on the other hand, ended up with its worst shooting performance of the season — 36.8 percent — and, worse, came away feeling as if the team had had its limitations exposed.
A buzzer-beater at Villanova or a late floater at Virginia Tech can be easier to stomach than not having the inside presence to combat a shooter like Tatum, who was able simply to rise above smaller defenders Wednesday and beat Virginia with the shot clock winding down.
“We’re working hard to become a better defensive team,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to get better for 40 minutes, and it’s not for a lack of trying.
“It’s a fine line, and that we’re in so many games — I told you guys that at the beginning of the year. This ballclub, we have some limitations in certain areas, and we’re fighting like crazy and we’re doing some good things. We have some strengths. But we’re going to be in a lot of close games.”
Bennett was asked twice this week about those close games, and whether losing in heartbreaking fashion can have detrimental effects on a team’s confidence, especially with a relatively young roster. A win at Virginia Tech this week would have put Virginia in a first-place tie in the ACC standings. Instead, it heads to Tobacco Road in sixth.
Bennett danced around the question both times, saying his message to his Cavaliers is to “just keep battling.”
Perrantes is more willing to talk about the significance of keeping spirits high, a new role he has taken on in the past few weeks. The senior knows how important confidence is with postseason tournaments less than a month away and two meetings with North Carolina left on the schedule. The Tar Heels will come to Charlottesville on Feb. 27.
“We need everybody confident going into postseason and the end of this season,” Perrantes said. “I’m still learning, but I’m trying to be the best leader I can right now.”