- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. — The mood was tense in Virginia’s locker room at halftime of Friday’s NCAA tournament game against Coastal Carolina.

A better team in every aspect and a No. 1 seed in an event where none has ever lost its first game, the Cavaliers found themselves down five points at halftime to a No. 16 seed.

Players were “bickering”, according to coach Tony Bennett afterwards, and “challenging each other”, in the words of sophomore guard Justin Anderson. The role of favorite weighed heavy on a program that hasn’t been one in years.

“Every year when it comes to bracketology time and everyone’s filling out their brackets, seeds don’t mean much,” Anderson said. “It’s about who’s going to show up to play. That’s what it’s all about. And we needed to make sure that we showed up to play in that second half.”

Virginia did get itself together thanks in part to a simple message: “Smile.” They heard it from Bennett. They heard it from sophomore forward Anthony Gill, who began quoting lyrics from the Canadian rapper Drake.

Not all his teammates knew exactly what he was talking about. But Gill made them laugh anyway. And that was the whole point. A looser group of Cavaliers banished any thoughts of a historic upset by stifling the Chanticleers in the second half and eventually pulling away for a 70-59 victory.

“Everything’s on the line and you can’t let it tense you up,” Virginia senior forward Akil Mitchell said. “You can’t let it freeze you up thinking this could be my last game.”

But the Cavaliers again must deal with being favorites when they face No. 8 seed Memphis on Sunday at PNC Arena. Against Coast Carolina they got away with a sloppy start. A similar one could prove costly against the Tigers (24-9), a speedy team that finished third in The American Athletic Conference behind Louisville and Connecticut.

Memphis had also spent almost the entire season ranked in the top 25 by both the Associated Press and in the USA Today Coaches polls, only dropping out of both for the first time this past week after a blowout loss to Connecticut in the AAC tournament semifinals.

Tigers coach Josh Pastner knows well the pressure that comes with being a No. 1 seed. As a reserve guard at Arizona in 2000, his powerhouse team was stunned by Wisconsin, a No. 8 seed, in the second round. Starting center Loren Woods was out with a back injury, but the Wildcats were still confident and hoping for a rematch with LSU, which had already reached the Sweet 16.

“We had got smoked [at] LSU earlier in the [season] because they put us right next to the Tiger,” Pastner said. “Our guys were more concerned about the Tiger than playing the game and we ended up losing by 30.”

And so the Wildcats, one of the great teams of that era, became so fixated on a Sweet 16 rematch with LSU they forgot about the Badgers, who bounced them from the tournament with a 66-59 win that also ended Pastner’s playing career. It was a harsh lesson.

Sunday’s game, an approximate 8:40 p.m. tip off, is a contrast in styles. Memphis likes to play fast. Pastner doesn’t think there’s any pace “too fast for us.” Virginia, meanwhile, likes to grind opponents into dust with its halfcourt offense and multiple players called its fantastic transition defense “non negotiable”.

Virginia has seen some similar teams. VCU was another tournament team that likes to use its defense to speed up its opponents’ play. That ended up a 59-56 loss. But by the end of the season the Cavaliers felt comfortable enough to fight off a similar style by Florida State in an ACC tournament win. Sophomore center Mike Tobey mentioned North Carolina as another team that liked to push the ball in transition. Virginia beat the Tar Heels by 15 points at home.

“We just have to try and get them moving around,” Tobey said. “Because teams that like to go up and down aren’t necessarily used to having to guard for a good 35 seconds on the shot clock. That’s the way we play our offense. We just get them working, get them tired and get some good shots towards the end of the shot clock.”

Memphis senior guard Chris Crawford remembered Oklahoma State, Gonzaga and LSU as opponents that tried to limit the pace against the Tigers. They won all three of those games anyway, the first two against eventual tournament teams - though were beaten by Oklahoma State 101-80 in an earlier meeting that turned into a track meet. A game at Rutgers was another that the Tigers managed to win just 64-59. 

Against Virginia’s halfcourt defense, Pastner emphasized his team’s ability to move the ball quickly. Close to 60 percent of Memphis’ field goals come off assists. If they are going to get easy shots against the Cavaliers then that trend must continue. Otherwise, they’re playing right into Virginia’s hands.

“You know what you have to do. Can you execute it?” Bennett said. “You might not do it perfectly every possession, but you better do it the vast majority of them. Who can get to their game first?”



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