It will be the Cavaliers’ first game in a week after Wednesday’s matchup with North Carolina State was postponed because of a positive coronavirus test and subsequent contact tracing for the Wolfpack.
“We went into the Gonzaga game with not the same anger,” Virginia guard Tomas Woldetensae said of the 98-75 loss to the top-ranked Bulldogs on Dec. 26. “We weren’t hungry to beat them to prove we are as good as we are. Also I believe sometimes you’ve got to lose to understand who you are and to win other games.”
In addition to owning the No. 1 scoring defense in the ACC, yielding 59.4 points per game, Virginia is first in the conference in field goal percentage (50.7) and second in three-point shooting percentage (38.5) after consecutive games in which it reached 80 points. Last season the Cavaliers’ high point total was 78. They’re also 10th nationally in offensive efficiency and ninth in defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. Virginia is one of only three teams in the top 10 in both categories.
“I think their offense is so unique this year,” said Luke Hancock, a men’s college basketball analyst for the ACC Network. “It’s more explosive, and Tony Bennett to his credit has realized, even though their defense is going to be there and their numbers are just going to get better and better, he realizes it’s not the same defensive juggernaut they’ve had in the past.”
The Cavaliers shot 60.7 percent overall, including 55.6 percent from three-point range, overwhelming an opponent that at the time was first in defensive efficiency. Underscoring the magnitude of the throttling was Virginia attempting just two free throws in a game it led by as many as 39 points.
Virginia had five players score in double figures for a second straight game, a first under Bennett.
The defense showed up too at Littlejohn Coliseum, limiting the Tigers to 5 for 23 (21.7 percent) on three-pointers. It was Virginia’s best three-point defense of the season against a high major and its third straight game holding an opponent below 29 percent.
Bennett has managed to alter the trajectory of the season even as he tinkers with a lineup that includes several new players, most notably Sam Hauser, a transfer from Marquette who sat out last season. The 6-foot-8 forward leads the Cavaliers in scoring (13.8 points a game) and rebounding (7.5 a game).
Among other players with significant roles who were not part of the team last season are Trey Murphy III, a transfer from Rice who received immediate eligibility from the NCAA the day before the season opener, and Reece Beekman, a highly touted freshman point guard.
So steady has Beekman been this season that he has started seven games despite a dearth of experience at the college level.
“We’ve got three guys that have not played in a Virginia uniform for a game, so there’s newness there where I think an identity has to be formed,” Bennett said. “How hard we have to defend, how hard we have to play to beat good teams, and that’s just gotten better from after the Gonzaga game. True humble pie, right?”
The Cavaliers are the only school in the ACC without a conference loss, although they have two games remaining against second-place Virginia Tech (11-2, 5-1). The first of those games originally scheduled for Jan. 2 was postponed when the Cavaliers reported a staff member had tested positive.
Virginia also plays Florida State (8-2, 4-1), the reigning conference champion, on the road and Pittsburgh (8-2, 4-1) in Charlottesville. The Seminoles and Panthers are tied for third place, one game behind Virginia.
“I will say Virginia is the team to beat,” Hancock said. “I think they look like the best team in the conference, but it’s not miles ahead. Florida State is right there. I think Virginia Tech is close. And I’ll tell you this, Pittsburgh whipped up on Duke. Those four teams are right there, but I would say Virginia and Florida State are kind of pushing ahead.”