UVA can’t afford a letdown vs. Notre Dame tonight

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo by Jon Golden

This is not the same Virginia basketball team that flat-lined upon its arrival to South Bend back on Dec. 30, a group of Cavaliers that were totally out of sync on both ends of the floor in a deflating 76-54 loss.

Notre Dame was struggling at that time and looking for answers. New coach Micah Shrewsberry had challenged his team, essentially telling his players to perform or find somewhere else to play.

They responded, bombarding UVA’s “Pack-Line” defense from the 3-point line, setting a game plan that Cavalier opponents would blueprint for the following few weeks.

With the Irish coming to town on Wednesday night (7 p.m., ESPN2), which will be the first of three UVA games over an upcoming six-day span, Notre Dame is struggling once again. The Golden Domers are 7-13 overall and 2-7 in the ACC, and have lost five straight games.

This time around, Virginia can’t afford to be the solution for Notre Dame’s problems. The Cavaliers (15-5, 6-3 ACC), winners of four-straight games, will defend the nation’s longest active home winning streak (21 in a row). UVA, back in the thick of things for a top-four ACC finish, can’t afford to blow this one.

Virginia is attempting to play its way onto the NCAA Tournament bubble, and a sweep of its next three games — Notre Dame, at Clemson (Saturday) and hosting Miami (Monday) — would be a giant step toward that goal. The Cavaliers are presently No. 48 in the NET, as the ACC continues to be neglected by the nation’s pollsters.

Shrewsberry benched two of his players for half of the loss to Boston College in the last outing, because of lack of effort.

“I think Groundhog Day is in February,” the Irish coach said after being swept for the second straight season by BC. “For us, Groundhog Day has been every single time we’ve had a game. We just have to find a way not to make the same mistakes every game. We have to find a way to do some things that lead to winning.”

Charlottesville’s John Paul Jones Arena might not be the best place to find oneself during such struggles. The Irish have never won at UVA in eight tries. In fact, Notre Dame is only 4-17 all-time against Virginia and 2-12 since joining the ACC.

The Cavaliers have gradually improved since that late-December loss in South Bend.

Since then, the “Pack-Line” has become much more effective, Tony Bennett is now getting the playable depth that he had expected heading into the season, certain players have become much more aggressive offensively, and the emergence of Jordan Minor as a physical force in the paint has been a huge development.

Not only is Minor a major rebounder, defender and can finish inside, he’s adept at setting screens for shooters such as Isaac McKneely, one of the most dangerous perimeter players in America.

With so many opponents attempting to beat UVA with 3-pointers, Bennett and his staff have changed some of the defensive coverage to take that away, a la at Louisville last Saturday. The Cardinals had really heated up from the arc in their previous five games, but were shut down by the Cavaliers defense, going a mere 3 for 11.