One by one, the elder statesmen of the Virginia men’s basketball team emerged from the visitor’s locker room at the Dean E. Smith Center, the same sullen expression on their faces. It was the sort of look one expects from a child awaiting punishment from a parent, and in this case, the Cavaliers knew exactly what they did wrong.
After months of adhering to the brand of patient, defensive-minded basketball Coach Tony Bennett has made his calling card, Virginia lost its way Saturday in a 93-81 loss at North Carolina. Its pack line defense couldn’t slow down the Tar Heels and the Cavaliers increased the tempo to keep pace, abandoning a style that proved so beneficial as they went from afterthought to conference contender over the past month.
So while Tuesday night’s road test at No. 2 Miami will be another opportunity for Virginia to score a marquee victory and enhance a head-scratching NCAA tournament resume that features both impressive wins and mind-boggling losses, it also affords the Cavaliers a chance to “find our identity again,” senior point guard Jontel Evans said.
“Our system is gonna stay the same. We don’t need to adjust anything. It’s what got us in this position with winning as many games as we have,” forward Akil Mitchell added. “But our mind-set has to be different. We have to come out a lot more focused, a lot more poised than we were.”
Bennett has spent the past few days ensuring his players understand exactly what went wrong Saturday. He told reporters a week earlier, when Virginia allowed a season-high 69 points in a win over Maryland, that the Cavaliers’ efficiency on offense — they’ve averaged more than 78 points over the past four games — hid their defensive issues.
In the midst of seven wins in eight games, the warning didn’t resonate in the locker room.
Against North Carolina, though, the Cavaliers were a step slow closing out on shooters and careless with the ball. Virginia shot 58.6 percent from the floor on offense, but Bennett came away concerned with how his team took quick shots instead of recognizing the need for patience when the Tar Heels caught fire offensively.
“We ride a fine line,” said leading scorer Joe Harris, echoing one of his coach’s favorite sayings. “Miami’s a very similar team to North Carolina. They like to get out and run and push it, and we’re gonna have to limit the mistakes offensively so we can set our defense.”
The Hurricanes, led by former George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga, enter Tuesday as perhaps the hottest team in the country, with 13 straight wins and an unblemished record in conference play. Armed with a starting lineup that features four seniors and ACC player of the year candidate Shane Larkin, Miami’s plethora of big men could pose problems for the Cavaliers.
“With our depth and where we’re at, defensively, we really need to tighten the screws. We probably need to come up with a special performance,” said Bennett, who will be without center Mike Tobey (mononucleosis) for a third straight game. Starting power forward Darion Atkins (Landon), meanwhile, has yet to play more than eight minutes in a game since suffering a shin injury last month.
But even after Saturday’s setback, a performance in which Virginia allowed more points in the second half (53) than it had in 11 full games this season, the Cavaliers still own the nation’s second-best scoring defense (54 points per game).
Perhaps, though, they needed another reminder of just how successful that formula has been.
“It’s not getting easier, but all the pressure is on them,” Evans said of Miami. “If we trust our system, we can sneak one out of there.”