Virginia in a huge NET showdown at Clemson on Saturday

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: Shakin The Southland

No question that Saturday’s Virginia game at Clemson is huge in terms of the postseason (2 p.m., ESPN).

The Cavaliers, 16-5, 7-3 (third in the ACC) rank No. 45 in the NET rankings and are currently trying to play their way onto the NCAA Tournament’s bubble. They’ve won five games in a row, but they desperately need another “Quad 1” win, and those opportunities are few and far between for the remainder of the season.

Clemson, 14-6, 4-5 (10th in the ACC) is a Quad 1 opportunity. The Tigers, who are 8-2 at Littlejohn Coliseum this season, rank No. 33 in the NET, and are a 4.5-point favorite by the oddsmakers in Saturday’s game.

If Virginia can pull off the upset, then knock off visiting Miami on Monday night, the Cavaliers will have played their way back into the NCAA conversation. While UVA has won its last six trips to Clemson and has taken 14 of the last 15 meetings against the Tigers overall, Saturday is clearly no gimme.

“I think the NCAA Tournament is always in the back of our mind regardless of where we are,” said Virginia’s Jake Groves after his 18 points helped the improving Cavaliers beat Notre Dame last Wednesday. “I think we’re starting to hit our stride and play, without a doubt, our best basketball. I’m assuming Clemson is a Quad 1 road game, so it’s a big one for us. It’s our job to get the guys ready for that through a couple of days of prep and then be fired up going into the game.”

There aren’t that many more opportunities for Virginia to gain Quad 1 wins the rest of the way. Presently, because the rest of the nation has largely disregarded the ACC, here are the current league teams among the NET’s top 70 heading into the weekend: UNC 9, Duke 17, Virginia Tech 49, Wake Forest 50, Miami 67.

UVA will face each one of those teams once the rest of the regular season. Presently, the Cavaliers are 1-2 vs. Quad 1 teams; 3-2 vs. Quad 2; 4-1 vs. Quad 3; and 8-0 vs. Quad 4.

Virginia’s players don’t necessarily become obsessed with NET rankings, but usually have a decent idea of where they stand and what the challenge is before them.

“I don’t look too much into it,” senior point guard Reece Beekman said of the NET, “but I know that [Clemson] is a big game for us. I tell the guys, like before the game, that we’re playing for something. I don’t know if we’re in the tournament as of right now, but in the back of our heads, we know that we’re still trying to achieve that goal.”

Photo by Josie Drumheller, Virginia Athletics

Beekman, who needs a mere dozen points to reach 1,000 for his career, said he and his teammates have taken everything up a notch since they fell into an early January slump, and that the intensity in everything from practice to walkthroughs to games has jumped dramatically.

“That’s kind of the reason I came back to school, was to lead these guys and have another opportunity to have Virginia at the top of the standings,” Beekman said. “It’s still a long season, but I like the way we’re trending in the right direction.”

Tony Bennett believes his team is improving and finding its identity. He has simplified some things to help accelerate the process on both ends of the floor, and as he put it, “demanding more, but showing patience.”

Beating Clemson on the road won’t be easy, but Bennett knows exactly what his team will be facing.

“They’re a mature, veteran, physical team, one of the better teams in our league,” Bennett said.

It’s a big game for the Tigers as well, and they will rely on the ACC’s No. 2 scorer, P.J. Hall, to help defend their home court.

Clemson has dropped off in terms of scoring over its last 8 games, particularly at the 3-point line, where the Tigers have made only 28 percent of their long-range attempts during that span. Hall has also slipped on his triple attempts during that same stretch, shooting only 18.9 percent from the arc (7 of 37).

Meanwhile, Clemson’s opponents, during those same eight games, have made 38 percent of 3-point attempts.

The 3-pointer has been a big factor for Virginia, which hit 13 triples against Notre Dame a few nights ago. When the Cavaliers make 35 percent or more of their 3-point attempts, they’re 12-0. When they shoot under that percentage, they are a mere 4-5.