Entering this week the sixth-ranked Virginia men’s basketball team, with a favorable remaining schedule, had been the front-runner to claim the ACC regular season championship.
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The Eagles, for instance, are rated 167th in the NCAA Net rankings yet limited Virginia to its fewest points this season. Jayden Gardner scored 16 points on 6-for-12 shooting, but the rest of the starters combined to go 10 for 36 (27.8 percent) from the field, and none had more than seven points.
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“We have to learn from that because of what we have coming up,” Coach Tony Bennett told reporters following the 63-48 result. “They put themselves in a great spot, I told them, but in that game at times it looked like we were on our heels at both ends of the floor, and you won’t win at this stage of the year against teams that are playing tough like that.”
On the heels of their first Quadrant 3 loss this season, the Cavaliers (21-5, 13-4 ACC) have two full days of practice to try to correct their deficiencies, particularly on offense, before facing North Carolina (17-11, 9-8) Saturday night at the Smith Center in their regular season road finale.
Virginia averaged 0.8 points per possession against the Eagles, who are yielding nearly 70 points per game and came in with a 7-10 record in the ACC. It shot just 19 for 59 (32.2 percent), including 4 for 21 on three-pointers, against an opponent with a field goal percentage defense of 44.1, 10th in the ACC.
The Cavaliers fared nearly as poorly last Saturday against visiting Notre Dame, which ranks second to last in the conference in field goal percentage defense (46 percent). Virginia shot just 36.5 percent in that game but won, 57-55, when Dane Goodwin missed an open three-pointer at the buzzer.
Kihei Clark, a fifth-year guard, was the only Cavaliers player to shoot above 50 percent, scoring 15 points on 4 of 7 from the field. The rest of the team combined to go 15 for 45 (33.3 percent), including guards Reece Beekman shooting 4 for 12 and Armaan Franklin 4 for 11.
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“I think teams are scouting and seeing Virginia is not going to score a million points,” said Luke Hancock, an analyst for the ACC Network and former player at Louisville. “They’re not going to score 78 if we find a way to not let them shoot a high clip from the three-point line and play one-on-one basketball in the post with Jayden Gardner. The offense is not looking very fluid.”
The scoring maladies over the past handful of games initially surfaced at Louisville, which is tied with the Fighting Irish for the worst record in the ACC (2-15). Virginia survived, 61-58, on Feb. 15 despite shooting 44.2 percent and going 9 of 16 on free throws.
The Cardinals are second to last in the ACC in scoring defense, allowing nearly 76 points per game. Still, Virginia labored to reach its point total, highlighted by Beekman missing all six of his field goal attempts and Ben Vander Plas needing 11 shots to score 10 points.
Vander Plas had been at the center of an upswing featuring 11 wins in 12 games when Bennett went to a smaller lineup and inserted the 6-foot-8 graduate transfer from Ohio University at center, with Gardner, at 6-6, at the forward surrounded by Clark, Beekman and Franklin in the starting lineup.
But Vander Plas went 5 for 17 (29.4 percent) from behind the arc during the last three games, allowing opponents to devote resources elsewhere on defense. In four seasons with the Bobcats, Vander Plas shot 209 for 643 (32.5 percent) on three-pointers.
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“If they want to play small ball, Ben Vander Plas needs to be that mismatch,” Hancock said. “He needs to be a guy that brings other bigs away from the basket, that forces you to play him tight out on the perimeter, or else it all kind of falls apart because he doesn’t give you quite enough at four and a half, five rebounds to just make it work if he’s not knocking down shots.”
Vander Plas started playing center regularly in the Cavaliers’ first meeting with North Carolina on Jan. 10. Virginia won, 65-58, at John Paul Jones Arena after Tar Heels 6-11 all-ACC forward-center Armando Bacot left the game early in the first half with a right leg ailment.
A sweep of North Carolina in the regular season still probably would leave the Cavaliers chasing Miami, which plays reeling Florida State on Saturday, for first place in the ACC. Virginia loses the head-to-head tiebreaker to Miami as well as to Pittsburgh, which is tied for second place in the ACC.
The top four finishers in the regular season earn a double bye into the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament that begins March 7 at Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C.