Tony Bennett had just been hired as men’s basketball coach at Virginia when he got a sense of what John Paul Jones Arena could become for his Cavaliers. It was April 2009 and Bennett watched as fans filled the 14,593-seat arena, packing in for one of the early dates of the Dave Matthews Band’s world tour.
Seven years into Bennett’s tenure, Virginia basketball has become the show to see in Charlottesville, and John Paul Jones Arena has become a bastion for the Cavaliers. Nearly unbeatable on its home court for the past four seasons, third-ranked Virginia will have its mettle tested when ACC-leading North Carolina comes to town Saturday along with ESPN’s “College GameDay” crew. At least the crowd will be on their side.
“I love what John Paul Jones Arena has become — I envisioned that when I first got here,” Bennett said Wednesday in a teleconference. “. . . I had a vision of what it was like when it was packed, and that’s really what you hope for. It’s really become that good in terms of the energy and the crowd.”
Virginia has done well feeding off that atmosphere, with an audience so attuned to its style that they cheer for defensive stops as much as they reward dunks. The Cavaliers are 13-0 at home this season and one of two teams with perfect home records in ACC play (Miami, also 8-0 against conference opponents, is 14-1 overall). Among top 10 teams in the nation, only Virginia and No. 2 Kansas are undefeated at home.
In fact, Virginia is 33-1 in home conference games over the past four seasons. The lone loss occurred the last time “GameDay” came to town, a 69-63 loss on Jan. 31, 2015, to eventual national champion Duke.
It’s quite a record to defend when Bennett and his players talk about protecting home court, which has become something of a team motto. Hoping to bounce back from back-to-back road losses in January? Not thinking about that, London Perrantes assured before the Cavaliers stopped such a drought by beating Miami in Charlottesville on Jan. 12 — just want to protect home court. Excited to have ESPN here for “GameDay” this weekend? That’s for the fans, Perrantes said, we’re focused on protecting home court.
It’s Virginia’s cliche of choice because that home win streak — 18 games overall and 12 in ACC play — is meaningful, Bennett explained, even if Virginia isn’t interested in counting the numbers.
“Of course, I’m sure these guys would love to go through a season without losing a home game,” Bennett said. “In this league, that says something, there’s a challenge there.”
Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, whose team has yet to beat Virginia as a member of the ACC, counts John Paul Jones Arena among the venues he dreads visiting most. North Carolina Coach Roy Williams, however, attributes the success to Bennett’s players.
“The facility is really difficult, but Notre Dame’s lost one game at home. Louisville’s lost one game at home,” Williams said. “It’s the quality of [Virginia’s] players. I love their team the last two years, the leadership, the togetherness, the cohesiveness — all those things.
“Maybe playing at home gives them a sense of security, but I assure you it’s the players, not the building.”
Virginia’s home crowd is a factor, though, especially for this year’s squad, which has occasionally struggled to maintain its energy. The Cavaliers (21-6, 10-5 ACC) average 69.4 points per conference home game while allowing 57.1. In ACC road games, they average 64.5 points while allowing 62.7.
Virginia boasted the third-largest average attendance increase in the nation from 2013-14 to 2014-15, according to the NCAA, with an increase of 1,972 per game. The atmosphere is similar this season — John Paul Jones Arena was packed even for a nonconference game against Lehigh the night before Thanksgiving.
“The crowd just gives us so much energy,” Perrantes said after beating Miami in Charlottesville on Jan. 12. “Playing here is a difference-maker in itself.”