Looking to position themselves for a top seed come March, the Virginia Cavaliers, No. 14 in the latest AP poll and tied for third in the Atlantic Coast Conference, host No. 12 Duke Wednesday night before traveling to Chapel Hill for a showdown with 10th-ranked North Carolina on Saturday.
The Cavaliers head into those tests after a week of highs and lows — a huge home win over then 4th-ranked Louisville sandwiched between two tough road losses to Syracuse and in-state rival Virginia Tech.
The loss to Virginia Tech Sunday night in double overtime was the third heartbreaker for the Cavaliers in recent weeks, including a four-point loss to unranked Syracuse and a tip-in at the buzzer that gave cost the Cavaliers a win over then-top-ranked Villanova.
Coach Tony Bennett said Monday his defensive-minded squad is ready for this week’s gauntlet.
“This is one of the best stretches that this team will ever have to face,” coach Tony Bennett said. “We understand that. We know that. That’s this league. You embrace it, you try to love the challenge and as a friend of mine said, be unflappable in it.”
Facing two of the top three offenses in the ACC in Duke and North Carolina, will be a test for the country’ top-ranked defense, Bennett said.
“At times we’ve been real sound, and at times we’ve gotten a little stretched and divided. We use the saying that defense never rests, it takes constant work and mental preparation,” Bennett said. “The ability to be good defensively is about being continuous possession by possession. If you’re a little off these teams can exploit that.”
Although the Cavaliers are giving up just 55 points per game, the Blue Devil and Tar Heel attacks feature dynamic scorers that will put pressure on the Virginia defense.
“You can see what they have. They have the ability to stretch the floor with the three, very good spacing, and then they can attack off the dribble with a number of players. It puts a premium on being as connected as you can and making them earn every possession,” Bennett said.
Virginia is 12-2 at home but just 6-4 on the road this season, and after going on the road for some tough games, the Cavaliers will be eager to return home to John Paul Jones Arena Wednesday night.
“Our fans have been terrific. We have a great atmosphere, an intelligent, hard-cheering crowd. That was really loud last night, we’ve seen that at a lot of places we’ve gone. You absolutely strive for that at home. It’s been encouraging to see it become a tough place to play over the years,” Bennett said.
With the Cavaliers’ last three losses all coming by four points or less, and with more close games expected, their confidence in tight games will be crucial as March begins to creep closer.
“Confidence is something you have to earn. We were a little closer in the last game and a lot of young guys are getting experience,” Bennett said “It’s about persevering and continuing to improve as the season winds down. The teams we’re playing, these settings are real intense and I hope we’re getting closer.”
Virginia was ranked 10th in the Selection Committee’s top 16 seeds released on Saturday, which would make the Cavaliers a three seed — higher than many anticipated. However, the loss to Virginia Tech may hurt that ranking. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently projects Virginia as a No. 4 NCAA seed.