In recent years, Virginia has been one of the best, most consistent programs in college basketball.
This year was no different – at least to start. The Cavaliers were 16-3 before losing by a bucket at No. 1 Villanova on Jan. 29.
That’s as good a loss as a team can have.
The Cavaliers, however, are in free fall. They’ve lost six of eight, including four in a row. Granted, three of those losses came by four points or fewer. Two came in overtime.
But with only three games left in the regular season, how does Virginia (18-9, 8-7) find its footing before the ACC Tournament?
“I think you hold tight to what first gives you a chance to be competitive,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “You can’t let go of trying to be as good as you can defensively while you’re struggling to get some buckets because that always gives you a chance to be in there. But you know sports teaches you some great, valuable lessons, and it certainly humbles you. Whenever you think you got it figured out, you can always be surprised. But you just keep battling. You really do. And I think you have to just fight like you have. You can’t hold it too tight – we’ve had four games in eight days – and one thing the ACC does as a conference is it checks you for leaks. If you got some leaks, it’ll show. We go against great competition and obviously we’ve sprung a few leaks, so we’ll try to figure it out. Every opportunity you play is a new one, and that’s kind of the mindset. I think you have to have that, and that’s sort of where we’re at right now.”
Virginia won 30 games in 2013-14, 30 games in 2014-15, and 29 games in 2015-16. Last year, the Cavaliers advanced to the Elite Eight.
Losing four straight is an unfamiliar feeling.
“This program is used to winning quite a bit,” Bennett said. “But we have a pillar in our program called unity, and the most important thing it starts with is do you have a group of guys you can lose with first? Because you have to know that. You have to be able to go through adversity with guys and know they’re not going to fracture or jump ship because if you can take what you learned in that losing and apply it, then you can be successful. I think that’s always tested when you’re going through slumps or you’re close but it doesn’t quite go that way. That’s where that character aspect comes in. That’s what you cling to. You stay together, even through the losses. Can we lose together? Then let’s find a way – because there’s not a big difference between being successful in some games and not. That’s that fine line we all walk.”
Bennett, 47, remains undeterred even though he has just one player, London Perrantes, scoring in double figures. Perrantes is averaging 12.3 points per game, with Marial Shayok (9.6), Devon Hall (8.4) and Isaiah Wilkins (7.6) close behind.
Shayok, Hall and Wilkins are all juniors but have taken on larger roles this season. Freshman Kyle Guy, meanwhile, has played a key supporting role with 7.0 points per game.
“That’s part of the growing curve,” Bennett said. “We started out so well probably the first two-thirds of the year, and now we’re sliding. You hold fast to defense. You make little adjustments. But you can’t make wholesale changes. You look at again these little adjustments and you’e just hopeful that you can get back to rhythm in certain things and find some answers and gain some of that success that you’ve had before. The little things matter in these situations, so you just keep grinding away.”
Virginia will have to get things going in a conference that might just be the best in the nation.
“What’s different and has made it maybe the best in my years is that this league this year, one through all of them…every team this year is so capable and so potent,” Bennett said. “It’s a monster that way. If you can survive it, you’re going to be better because you have been through a lot of stuff. That’s quite the challenge right there.”
Virginia plays at NC State (15-14, 4-12) this Saturday at 12 p.m. ET before a home game against No. 8 North Carolina (23-5, 11-3) on Feb. 27. Tip-off against the Tar Heels is slated for 7 p.m. ET.