RALEIGH, N.C. — Isaiah Wilkins issued a warning as a semicircle of reporters closed in on him in the hallway of PNC Arena after Virginia’s win over North Carolina State on Saturday:
“Y’all come any closer, that’s dangerous.” Wilkins laughed, “That’s up to you.”
The junior forward looked fine through 20 minutes of energetic play Saturday, but his watery eyes and sniffles told a different story that kept reporters at arm’s length. Wilkins had strep throat.
He woke up Saturday morning and felt so bad he didn’t think he would be able to play in Saturday’s 70-55 win until he warmed up and figured he’d give it a shot. Wilkins wasn’t the only Virginia player feeling under the weather over the weekend, either. Junior guard Darius Thompson was running a fever before the N.C. State game, and Cavaliers Coach Tony Bennett mentioned that Jack Salt had strained his back at some point over the week. Bennett even noticed the big man wincing in pain occasionally during the game.
Unfortunately for Wilkins and his sore throat, No. 18 Virginia (19-9, 9-7 ACC) has no time to rest before a meeting with No. 8 North Carolina (25-5, 13-3) in Charlottesville as a part of ESPN’s “Big Monday.” The N.C. State-North Carolina turnaround is the Cavaliers’ third set of Saturday-Monday games this season — the most Saturday-Monday swings any ACC team plays in 2016-17.
“It’s definitely taxing in a lot of ways,” freshman guard Kyle Guy said Saturday, one of the only bodies free of ice packs wrapped around various limbs. “Well, we got school Monday, so we have to deal with that, and it’s taxing on our bodies and we’re tired, and the traveling back and forth . . . ”
The ACC began playing Monday night games when it expanded to 15 teams before the 2013-14 season, bumping the Big East from the “Big Monday” slate and filling those slots with its most prominent programs. Virginia played three Monday night games that year — against Duke, North Carolina and Maryland — all of which were designed to be ratings busters.
This season, the Cavaliers’ first set of Saturday-Monday games featured a loss at Syracuse and a win against Louisville in early February. Last week, Virginia lost at North Carolina on Saturday and at home to Miami on Monday. Now, Virginia gets a rematch with North Carolina two days after beating the Wolfpack. That’s two weeks in a row the Cavaliers have had just one day in between games — one of which was on the road — then a large block of time off afterward. Following its game against North Carolina, Virginia will have to wait five days before playing its regular season finale against Pittsburgh. Bennett isn’t a big fan of the odd spacing.
The Virginia coach was asked about the quick turnaround after Saturday’s game. The question wasn’t finished before he sarcastically responded “yep, terrific,” and gave a tight smile.
The upside, he conceded, was that the Saturday-Monday format mimics the frenetic scheduling of the NCAA tournament.
“Yeah, for sure, you have to look at it that way,” Bennett said. “Scheduling’s an interesting thing. We’ll discuss some things when the time’s right, with the people that we should discuss it with, in terms of games and spacing and all that. Some of the stuff is TV driven and I get all that, but [it’s a] quick turnaround. You’ve got to be ready, and absolutely — if you’re fortunate enough to get into the NCAA tournament. You win a game, you have a day off or a day of prep and then you’ve got to be ready to play a great team.”
The benefit of that extra postseason preparation doesn’t change the fact that like most teams this time of year, Virginia is banged up. And Monday, they’ve got to be healthy enough to play a North Carolina team that handed the Cavaliers a 65-41 loss, their worst defeat since 2013, the last time they met.
“We know what Carolina is,” Bennett said Saturday, “We gotta get back, get some guys healthy and come at it better than we did down there. We tried to come at it the right way there, but we didn’t.”