Bennett still believes in rags-to-riches story

Predicting Virginia’s demise is something that began in ACC press rooms in early January. Plenty of folks just didn’t believe in the Cavaliers.

And with injuries piling up on the boys from Charlottesville, expectations of the Cavaliers’ downfall have accelerated.

But it really hasn’t happened. UVA did lose two in a row and three of four games recently, but it has rebounded to grab consecutive victories; a rout of Maryland and a tough win at arch rival Virginia Tech on Tuesday night.

At 21-6 overall and 8-5 in the ACC, the No. 25 Cavaliers are well on their way to an NCAA tournament invitation. And with their deliberate style of play, knack for keeping turnovers down, perimeter potential, and the added depth gained thanks to a rash of injuries, the Wahoos could be a team to keep an eye on as March nears.

But the ACC tournament is still two weeks away, and the NCAA tournament doesn’t begin for another three weeks. Given Virginia’s current health situation that could well seem like an eternity. But UVA coach Tony Bennett isn’t thinking beyond the next task at hand, and on Saturday afternoon that is the 24-4 North Carolina Tar Heels.

“We’ve got a saying, ‘Blinders on and one game at a time,’” he said. “When horses run races they put blinders on them so they’re not looking to the horses to the left or right.”

Virginia is out of the running for the ACC’s regular-season title, but it sure would love to snag that fourth spot in the standings so it can avoid playing on Thursday of the ACC tournament in Atlanta. If somehow the Cavs fell to fifth, they likely would cruise past the 12 seed and have to play 24 hours later against the four seed.

The extra game might not aid the healing process of Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon very well. Harris broke his non-shooting hand in a loss at UNC two weeks ago and the swelling is just now going down. He’s not scoring much but he’s still getting time.

In Tuesday’s 61-59 win at Virginia Tech, Harris played 32 minutes, but scored just two points. He did register three steals, so his caginess is still helping the Hoos, but they need his shooting to return by the postseason.

“He just doesn’t have great control with it,” Bennett said about Harris’ shot. “The shot’s a little slower.”

Brogdon injured his ankle against Maryland and played just 13 minutes vs. the Hokies. He will certainly be needed against the athletic Tar Heels this weekend, but most important is to get him back for the stretch run of games against Florida State at home and at Maryland.

Big man Assane Sene fractured his right ankle Jan. 19 and was originally expected to be out six weeks. But based on what Bennett said Monday, that doesn’t seem feasible.

“Physically, he’s 50 percent weight-bearing and still on crutches, so it’s too hard to speculate on physically where he’s at.”

This has already been a terrific season for the Cavs, whose top scorer is Mike Scott at 17.3 points per game. The 21 victories are the program’s most since 1995, the last time it reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. That team upset Roy Williams and top-ranked Kansas in the Sweet 16 in Kansas City, a defeat Williams has essentially admitted is the most difficult of his career.

UVA welcomes Ol’ Roy to John Paul Jones Arena this weekend hoping to find a way to score some points. UNC is one of the top scoring teams in the nation, and the Cavs know they have a great chance at earning a win if they hit the 60-point mark. In fact, Virginia is 17-0 when scoring 60 or more points.

It may take more Saturday, but Virginia’s season won’t be defined by what happens then. If everything falls into place, March just might be kinder to the Cavs than many pundits ever believed and certainly more than February has been.