The common thread with championship-caliber teams is that they are all tested at some point, whether it’s overcoming a deficit during an elimination game or overcoming an injury or two. Even the last unbeaten college basketball team, the 32-0 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, had to overcome a 6 point halftime deficit to Michigan in the championship game. Earlier in the ‘76 tournament, Indiana had in fact trailed Alabama, 69-68, with just over two minutes remaining. No matter the adversity or the hostile environment, resilient teams always have the wherewithal, the maturity, and the championship mettle to come through. And make no mistake, Virginia is being tested at the moment with losses to Justin Anderson and now London Perrantes after a scary on-court head collision with Malcolm Brogdon during the Florida State game. The Silver Lining to all of this is that, should Virginia manage to have both Anderson and Perrantes back at full-strength in time for the ACC and, more importantly, NCAA tournaments, they will be a tough team to beat. This is a mature team. Their pack line defense has thus far carried the team through this tough, injury depleted stretch, covering up for the missing offensive firepower from Anderson and now the steady floor leadership from Perrantes. The bottom line is that championships are not easy. They are hard. Kentucky, as good as they are, (and they are really good), has not been tested. Their time will come.
I don’t know about you but I’m tired of the cold and the ice and the crunch of snow beneath my cold feet. Remarkably, I’ve managed to hold onto my scarves, hat, and gloves this winter without a single loss. On that note, Kentucky will not lose its first game either this evening against my Alma mater, Auburn, at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats seem intent on cruising and, scary as this sounds, getting better game-by-game.
Virginia’s identity remains clear at this point: their stifling, pack line defense will carry the day for the remainder of their season. It is truly who they are and if they win games 50-46, so be it and good. It’s often said that defense wins championships, particularly in football, and that’s true, but in college basketball you need a shooter or two who can hit 3’s. The guess is here is that the Cavaliers will continue to ride their defense on cruise control from here on out while, more importantly, getting Justin Anderson ready to come back in March because they’ll need him for tournament play. He’s their best 3 point shooter.
Stay warm, avoid icy spots this weekend, and immerse yourselves in those ESPN shots from various spring training sites with lush green grass, gentle breezes, and warm Florida sunshine! I’m sure Bostonians will.
Virginia had a tough but impressive road win this past Wednesday against N.C. State in Raleigh, 51-47. These are the kind of gut-it-out games on the road that prove championship-caliber teams are greater than their parts. The challenge for Virginia now as they enter the soft part of their ACC schedule (beginning today at home against Wake Forest) is to remain focused and work hard while Justin Anderson’s recuperates from his fractured finger. Anderson himself will need to stay engaged with the team during games and, more importantly during practices while training hard to retain his conditioning and timing. Unbeaten Kentucky meanwhile continues to flirt with its first loss, coming within a 3 pointer of losing last Tuesday against LSU. There’s not a game remaining on their schedule that the top-ranked ‘Cats should lose. Still, the thinking here is that a loss before the SEC and NCAA tournaments in March wouldn’t be the worst thing for the young, talented team. Remaining regular season games against Arkansas and Georgia offer the best chance for a loss. Enjoy your college basketball viewing during a cold President’s day weekend in February!
Coach Rick Pitino and the 9th ranked Louisville Cardinals will make their first ACC trip to Charlottesville this evening for their match-up against the 3rd ranked Cavaliers. This should be a fun game to watch with the suave, high profile Pitino. Louisville likes to play an all-court, full-court press style of play while feeding the ball into physical presence Montrezl Harrell down low in the post. Virginia, if they can handle Louisville’s press, and I think they can, could get easy baskets in transition off the press (think Justin Anderson hanging-on- the- rim- kind-of-dunks). Still, Louisville is clearly an established program with a Hall of Fame coach and the championship pedigree to prove it. Virginia, the newcomer to the national block, must stay disciplined, play their game, and stay hungry, one possession, one defensive stop at a time. Until Virginia proves they can win championships, they are the challenger.
The No.1 Kentucky Wildcats, 22-0, will play later tonight in Gainesville, Florida, against Pitino protégé Billy Donovan and the struggling Florida Gators. Kentucky should win, but never say never playing on the road in a hostile environment against a traditional rival.
Speaking of the Louisville/Virginia match-up, this writer had the opportunity to watch several of tonight’s players up-close back in the April 2012 Capital Classic All-Star basketball at T.C. Williams high school. That would be UVA players Justin Anderson, Mike Tobey, and Evan Nolte, and Louisville star Montrezl Harrell (who was clearly the most dominating player during that game).
So much for an “easy” Virginia win against Duke yesterday like this writer predicted. The young Blue Devils looked every bit the championship quality team during the last five minutes, hitting several NBA-caliber three’s after Virginia seemingly had the game in hand (but two’s don’t beat three’s). And where was the stifling Virginia defense that would certainly tire out Duke during the second half? The Blue Devils had open looks around the perimeter during the last five minutes (perhaps Virginia was trying to collapse in on freshman star Jahlil Okafar but the three’s beat them). And speaking of stellar Duke freshmen, kudos to guard and clutch player Tyus Jones who wanted to take the big shot at the end (and delivered). Virginia now has a more meaningful game tomorrow night against North Carolina in Chapel Hill as the Cavaliers will want to reassert themselves with a win and prove that they should remain atop the national stage. Since its Super Bowl Sunday and I laid an egg yesterday, I’ll say that the Seattle defense shuts down Tom Brady and beats New England “easily” today. Enjoy your Super Bowl Sunday!