Red-hot Virginia continues on roll, taking down Tigers

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Look who woke up this morning all alone in second place in the ACC basketball standings. None other than written off, left-for-dead Virginia.

A team that is ranked at best as on the proverbial NCAA Tournament bubble, the Cavaliers have strung together the nation’s second-longest active winning streak — six straight — and the country’s longest overall home winning streak — 22 games — as UVA has reversed its fortunes.

Less than three weeks ago, a certain segment of Wahoo fans had turned their backs on the program, perhaps spoiled by the decade-plus of success directed by Tony Bennett. Some, sadly, had even given up on him … sacrilege for those who remember the days of Dave Leitao.

On Saturday, in a key ACC battle at Clemson, Virginia got a second consecutive strong scoring performance from Jake Groves, who is now more comfortable playing his stretch-four position after the emergence of Jordan Minor at the five.

It was a 66-65 Thriller-Diller at Clemson, a Quad 1 win that UVA desperately needed for its postseason resume. Arguably, Clemson needed it just as badly because even though the Tigers were ranked higher in the confusing and seemingly flawed NET rankings than Virginia, Clemson is well behind the Cavaliers in the ACC standings.

For a complete blow-by-blow account of the game, a full box score and notebook, see our related game story here.

Groves poured in 17 points, while Reece Beekman and Isaac McKneely added 14 apiece. Groves, by the way, has made 11 of his last 15 attempts from the 3-point arc, which is an insane 73.3 percent. Bennett pointed out that had it not been for Virginia’s defensive effort, some of the points would not have mattered.

Still, the Cavaliers are red-hot since they were mired in an ugly four-game road losing streak that started at Memphis on Dec. 19 and ended on Jan. 13 at Wake Forest, with two other lopsided road losses to Notre Dame and NC State sandwiched in between.

Clearly, some of Wahoo Nation — not all, but certain segments — weren’t listening when Bennett told everyone in October that the Virginia team that fans would see in November and December would not be the same Virginia team they would see in March.

Bennett knew it would take time to correct some of UVA’s flaws, particularly a lack of size and physicality down low, which made rebounding a challenge.

Freshman Blake Buchanan simply wasn’t strong enough to hold his ground against bigger, stronger and experienced big men. Grad-transfer Jordan Minor had the size, the experience and the physicality, but had played four years of nothing but zone defense and was struggling with learning the intricacies of Bennett’s “Pack-Line” defense.

All this forced Groves, at 6-foot-9, to play the five spot, where he tried hard but just wasn’t the answer. With him playing out of position, that removed another shooter from Virginia’s perimeter attack.

Once Minor gained Bennett’s confidence, it changed the team. He added everything that was missing down in the paint. Bennett also was bringing Buchanan along, like a budding star quarterback, slowly being groomed to contribute.

Now, the Minor/Buchanan combination is giving the Cavaliers everything they need down low, along with Ryan Dunn’s great rebounding and shot-blocking skills.

It has also allowed Groves to comfortably fit in at his natural position and he is taking some pressure off McKneely, who has drawn massive defensive resistance.

Meanwhile, Dante Harris has come back from a nasty ankle sprain to add depth in the backcourt, and Taine Murray has also added to the depth.

When Virginia was out of sync, losing by 16-to-22 points, the Cavaliers were experiencing all sorts of defensive breakdowns. In fact, statistical analyst Evan Miyakawa pointed out that UVA was one of the four worst teams out of the top-rated 75 in the country, in terms of giving up runs of 10 or more points.

The Wahoos have become a little more reliable in that category, in addition to shoring up some of their other warts.

Still, a mere three weeks from that nightmarish four-game road stretch, it’s hard to forget what some Virginia fans were expressing on social media. We saved some of those comments:

“Fire up the bus on the season.”

“Terribly constructed roster.”

“Another season where Tony Bennett has no confidence in players on the bench. Decisions made last year (Shedrick) doomed this year’s team. Even Casey Morsell playing well at NC State is another sign of TB’s poor handling of talent in the past 3-4 years.”

“Young. Not good. And, hate to say it, poor coaching.”

“I like Bennett, but his style of basketball has wore out its welcome.”

“Prediction – UVA finishes 18-13. No dance invite. Makes it to the second round of the NIT.” (By the way, Virginia is now 17-5).

“Pull the plug on the season.”

“This team is done. Will not win a road game and has serious flaws they can’t be can’t be corrected with this roster.”

“I don’t do it often but I strongly disagree with Coach. This team is done. Might win a couple more at home, but there is no tournament in their future and he needs to look long and hard on recruiting and player rotation.”

“I have to limit my Twitter use because between this and football, the fans are becoming insufferable.”

“Tony is losing this ship and it’s sinking quick.”

There are plenty of more samples, but you get the picture. Bennett knew it would be a process, blending only one returning starter — Beekman — with two players who had some experience in McKneely and Dunn, along with four transfers, two true freshmen and a sparsely-used reserve.

The players didn’t give up, kept working. Just look at Minor, who said he took the brick-by-brick approach to getting up to speed and finally showed Bennett he was ready to rock ‘n roll.

Throughout that stretch, Bennett kept motivating his players, pointing to his beloved Green Bay Packers’ turnaround from a 2-5 start to making the NFC Playoffs. Bennett tried to do the same with fans, using scripture: “Don’t grow weary in doing good, for in due time — and I don’t know when that due time is, is it next game, is it down the road — you will reap a harvest.”

Some of the harvest is in, a six-game winning streak that has beefed up the NCAA resume, but Bennett would be the first to admit there’s more work to do.

The team has become more physical, has done a remarkable job of rebounding, and is developing more scoring while somewhat shortening its rotation. All the while, like Clemson coach Brad Brownell pointed out Saturday, the traditional Virginia trademark of grinding on every possession puts tremendous pressure on teams accustomed to playing that style of basketball.

There’s a very short turnaround for the Cavaliers, who host a good Miami team on Monday night. It’s a home game that Virginia can’t afford to lose.