CHARLOTTESVILLE — It’s been more than 10 months since Syracuse knocked Virginia out of the NCAA tournament, but Cavaliers point guard London Perrantes can still feel it.
The usually immutable point guard copped to getting chills and being sick whenever he thinks about his team’s 68-62 loss in the Elite Eight. He said in October, “I don’t think it’ll ever leave my conscience.”
On Saturday at the Carrier Dome, Virginia will meet Syracuse for the first time since.
“I haven’t thought about it [for a while] until you brought it up right now, and now my heart’s pounding,” the senior said Wednesday, his eyes closing before speaking again. “Yeah, obviously, it hits home.”
The top-seeded Cavaliers led by 15 points with less than 10 minutes remaining on March 27 in Chicago when the Orange switched from its famed zone defense to a full-court press. Virginia tightened up, then fell apart, surrendering a 21-2 run over six minutes. After the defeat, Perrantes, who scored a team-high 18 points, sat alone in the locker room with his head between his hands.
“It’s something that we were so close to getting to the Final Four,” he said Wednesday. “Now to go back to that opponent in their place, I’m obviously excited. I’m trying to get this bad taste out of my mouth still, but I don’t think it will.”
Compared to that, Perrantes said, Saturday is “just another game, really. As hard as it is to say, it’s just another game.”
There are plenty of reasons for ninth-ranked Virginia (17-4, 7-2 ACC) to avoid being overly invested in this matchup with the Orange (14-9, 6-4), which has surged recently with three consecutive wins. The Cavaliers will face a gantlet after the trip to New York, with their four following games against No. 6 Louisville at home, at rival Virginia Tech, back home for No. 21 Duke and then at No. 12 North Carolina .
Moreover, the Cavaliers have little reason to be bitter. Doubt clouded this season after centerpieces Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey graduated. But two-thirds of the way through the schedule, with a roster that bears little resemblance to last year’s, the team sits in second place in the ACC.
Still, Syracuse sticks in the craw of Coach Tony Bennett as well.
“Yeah, now that you mention it, I’m doing a lot of therapy and I was over that and you brought it up,” he joked Wednesday. “I mean, when you go back, that was a terrific opportunity, but we’re such a different team.
“That was a beautiful season last year. We knocked on the door of a Final Four — didn’t get there. But they’re a different team, we’re a different team, and you got to go in there and play. We’re in a race. . . . We got two days to prepare, and that’s a tough zone; we know that. They’re a dangerous team at home, so we’ll be ready to go.”
Younger players have found it easier to move on than Perrantes. Youth has given Virginia a somewhat new identity this season. Where last year the Cavaliers depended so heavily on Brogdon, Gill and Tobey as scorers and shutdown defenders, this year’s squad has upheld defensive standards and achieved on offense with a by-committee approach.
Junior forward Isaiah Wilkins has slid into more of a leadership role, shifting his focus to the team’s new players. He’ll yap instructions or encouragement during games and harp on them about defense in practice.
“I think we share the ball, that’s our strong point,” Wilkins said. “It’s been so many different guys leading us in scoring. Ty [Jerome] is playing great right now, Kyle [Guy] has had his time, [Darius Thompson] has had his time. . . . It’s just been so long, and we have like six new guys. There’s no, like — last year was last year. It would have been the same if you asked me before Villanova. It’s just a new team, a new focus, and we’re just learning from each other and playing off that.
“That game’s over, guys graduated, it’s a new year. We’re going there locked in. Try to get one on the road.”