When Virginia men’s basketball Coach Tony Bennett wants to deliver a message to his players, he often will do so with an analogy — however corny it may be.
In just the past few weeks, with his team racking up wins at a pace Cavaliers fans haven’t experienced since the days of Ralph Sampson, he told them to imagine every game the rest of the season as steps that can only be climbed one-by-one, and with both feet.
Before then-unranked Virginia visited Pittsburgh and its rowdy “Oakland Zoo” student section earlier this month, Bennett discussed turnovers by emphasizing, “Don’t feed the animals.”
So with a trip to last-place Virginia Tech on tap, the first of three consecutive games against ACC teams (the Hokies, Notre Dame and Miami) that currently have fewer combined conference wins (10) than Virginia (12), Bennett likely will turn to another barnyard staple: racehorses.
“We talk about putting on the blinders,” he said.
On Monday, having won nine games in a row, Virginia (21-5, 12-1) ascended to No. 14 in the latest AP poll, its highest ranking since February 2002.
A victory Tuesday night in Blacksburg would give the Cavaliers 13 ACC wins for just the second time in program history and match the 13-1 conference record compiled by the 1980-81 team that went to the Final Four.
So far, Bennett’s players have shown few signs of overconfidence.
After nine of its first 10 ACC wins came by double digits, Virginia proved it could grind out victories in crunch time over the past week. That includes a 63-58 triumph at Clemson on Saturday in which the Cavaliers overcame a 34.6 percent shooting performance after halftime.
Entering Monday, Virginia has won six of its past seven games against Virginia Tech.
“We’re really just holding each other accountable and keeping our egos in check,” leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon said. “I think Coach Bennett does a really good job of making sure we stay hungry.”
This week, with just five regular season games remaining, he’ll need only remind his team of last year. After Virginia upset Duke on Feb. 28 and seemed well on its way to an NCAA tournament berth, the Cavaliers proceeded to lose their next two games.
They ultimately fell short on Selection Sunday, an unlikely scenario this time around. But don’t expect Bennett to look ahead to a March 1 meeting with No. 1 Syracuse in Charlottesville, a game that likely will determine the ACC regular season champion.
“When you’re in a good position . . . you know the significance of every game and the quality that you need to bring,” Bennett said. “I think you’d be foolish not to look back at your history . . . and say, ‘What things have cost us?’ ”
The Hokies (9-15, 2-10) enter Tuesday on the heels of their first win of 2014 — a 52-45 victory over Miami that snapped a 10-game losing streak.
Virginia Tech, which lost to Virginia, 65-45, in Charlottesville last month, turned a corner of late by adopting some of the methodical principles Bennett has used his entire career.
With injuries mounting, Coach James Johnson has sidelined his up-tempo approach in favor of limiting possessions, emphasizing shot selection, pounding the ball inside and using more zone defense. Combined with a double overtime loss at Pittsburgh nine days ago, it proved once and for all the Hokies haven’t quit on Johnson, despite a second straight rough campaign.
“It’s important any time that you get a win and the guys can see their hard work is paying off,” Johnson said. “Confidence is big, especially with a young team that we have and the young guys we have playing.”
Virginia Tech power forward C.J. Barksdale returned to the lineup Saturday and scored 12 points and grabbed seven rebounds after missing the previous four games with a groin injury. Johnson said he is unsure if senior Cadarian Raines (flu) will play Tuesday and guard Adam Smith also will be unavailable as he continues to deal with a calf injury.