Despite a tough loss on the road to second-ranked Miami on Tuesday, Virginia coach Tony Bennett says his team is right where it wants to be with five regular-season games remaining and a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament there for the taking.
“I know we’re right on the [bubble],” said Bennett, during an interview on Wednesday. “That [Miami game] would have been a nice one to get to help our chances, I’d have to say, but just to be in the conversation at this stage is what you want.
“Hopefully, we can just play quality basketball and give ourselves a chance. There are still games and a lot of positioning to be done.”
Virginia is in that Big Dance “conversation” mainly because of one of the more unique tournament resumes in recent memory. It’s one that features some “good wins” (Wisconsin, North Carolina and N.C. State), but also some “bad losses” (Delaware, Old Dominion and Wake Forest).
While beating Miami would have been a major feather in its cap, most bracketologists feel that the loss didn’t hurt Virginia. Rather, it was just a missed opportunity.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has Virginia in the tournament. He has UVa as one of his “Last Four In.”
In the loss to Miami, Bennett liked his team’s effort. It was the execution that was sometimes lacking.
“There are a lot of battles that take place during the course of a game — the battle of the glass, the battle to take care of the ball, to get to the free-throw line, to shoot it well — but the one battle we needed to win for us to have a chance was the hustle battle,” said Bennett, whose team hosts Georgia Tech on Sunday. “I thought we got to the loose balls and were scrappy. I thought that allowed us to hang in. Guys played extremely hard.”
While some people were to quick to praise Virginia’s defensive effort against the Hurricanes, Bennett said the performance wasn’t one of his team’s best.
“With my critical eye watching it, defensively, there were a few too many breakdowns,” he said. “We were slow on the post trap and then they threw it out quick or we [wouldn’t] show hard on a ball screen.”
Miami shot 47 percent from the field and scored 36 of its 54 points in the paint.
“Good teams exploit you when you make a mistake,” Bennett said. “It was hard fought and we hung in there, but when we needed to make a defensive stop or a stand we just weren’t able to.”
The two most glaring lapses came late in the game, and both involved Miami point guard Shane Larkin.
First, Larkin scored on an unabated drive to the basket to put Miami up 48-46. On the play, nobody provided help defense to Jontel Evans.
Seconds later, Akil Mitchell lost track of Reggie Johnson on the game-winning basket.
Bennett, who hates giving up anything easy, said both plays “stung.”
However, less than 24 hours after the defeat, he was looking for the silver lining.
“Not many teams have played them that close,” Bennett said. “I don’t know if there’s a consolation in that or not.”
Bennett isn’t ruling out Virginia freshman Mike Tobey (mononucleosis) playing against Georgia Tech on Sunday. Bennett said if Tobey’s blood test shows improvement and he is able to practice a little, he could see the court for the first time since the loss to Georgia Tech on Super Bowl Sunday. “We were hoping he’d be able to play Tuesday, but the blood test wasn’t at the right level to allow him,” Bennett said. “You just have to be careful if he comes back too soon. You don’t want him to relapse.”