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January 31, 2013

UVa working to build its resume

It's almost February. And when we turn the calendar to February, college basketball fans start to think about March. But college basketball teams? They have to think about March all season long. As so frames the curious predicament facing Virginia's Cavaliers.

Going into a matchup at Georgia Tech on Sunday, UVa (15-5, 5-2 ACC) is sitting in second place in the conference and in the midst of a four-game winning streak.

Yet even after victories at Wisconsin and over Tennessee, and Florida State (all top 100 of the RPI), as well as wins over UNC and NC State (both top 50), Virginia sits at 95th. Why?

Well, you could blame early-season losses to George Mason and Delaware (which cost the Cavaliers a trip to Madison Square Garden in the preseason NIT and relegated them to games against North Texas and Lamar). Those things combined certainly hurt the resume. But the real culprit is a 63-61 loss to Old Dominion in the Governor's Holiday Hoops Classic.

Old Dominion was 1-10 coming into that game on December 22. The Monarchs haven't won a game since. Their RPI sits at a comfy 323..........of 347 teams.

A lot changed for Virginia in the 38 days between walking off the court at the Richmond Coliseum that night and beating No. 19 NC State this past Tuesday. But any postseason hopes must continue to fight the ghost of that woeful performance.

In no game this season have the Wahoos allowed a league opponent to score 60 points or more, which has never been done in the modern era. But inexplicably, the Monarchs did and that might make all the difference weeks from now.

The UVa team that lost that game isn't the one that fans have come to know. Senior point guard Jontel Evans didn't play, one of nine games he missed this season due to a foot injury. ODU outrebounded Virginia 39 to 32 and put up a 43-point second half when Florida State could only muster 36 all game.

First-year players combined for 79 minutes against the Monarchs. For context, in the win over NCSU, they played just 55.

So if they were told that night that come February, they'd be second in the ACC, would these Cavaliers have believed it?

"Honestly? I don't think so," Evans said after the team's 58-55 win over State on Tuesday. "We didn't have an identity back then. The body language, the attitudes, were down. We needed to get together and pick each other up. Now, we're rolling. We're playing some very good basketball and we've got to just keep it up."

The team's leading scorer, junior swingman Joe Harris, admits that had he been told about upsetting the No. 19 team in the country and the situation UVa finds itself in now, he's not sure he would have bought the team being second in the ACC.

"I don't know what I would have been thinking that night," he said with a laugh. "I was pretty [mad] that we lost to ODU."

Both Evans and Harris say something changed for UVa after that game.

"Coaches got on us," Evans recalled. "Practices after that got a lot harder, more competitive. Guys have been holding each other accountable. Everybody wants to win and we realized we have something special with this team and we want to take it as far as we can."

Said Harris, "In losses like that, that's when the team is supposed to come together, when you face a little bit of adversity. I think ever since that game we've really responded and bounced back.

"We've practiced better. [Our] mindset has changed a little bit and I think our results are reflective of that," he said.

Junior forward Akil Mitchell, who posted the seventh double-double of his season in the win over the Wolfpack, says he understands why people might look at Virginia and wonder. But he, likes his teammates, credits the job head coach Tony Bennett and his staff did to make those losses in the first part of the season turn into building blocks.

"From an outside perspective looking in, it's kind of hard to believe," he explained, "that we lost to Old Dominion and George Mason early in the season and kind of the things that we've gone through. But we know with this team, we fight through adversity. And that's one of the things that we've always done with Coach Bennett."

Harris says UVa is a team that rides "such a fine line" that makes it even more important to play together.

"We lacked some experience and were missing some guys in that ODU game," he said. "Every possession is so valuable and a lot of our games, even ones you don't expect to be that close, are going to be fairly close just because of the way that we play. We had some bad losses early in the season but at this point, our freshmen have really stepped up. They're gaining more confidence. And they're starting to realize how high of a level they have to play. And they're getting enough confidence that they believe that we can play at that level."

Added Mitchell, "You want to lose with a team before you can win with the team. And I'm proud of my guys for stepping back up.

Depending on the final 11 games of the regular season as well as the ACC Tournament, Virginia will have to wait and see what the next turn in the calendar brings.


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