If you thought the Packers vs. the Bears was physical, then get a load of tonight’s Virginia vs. Wisconsin game. Except the Cavaliers and visiting Badgers won’t be wearing pads. No, they’ll be slamming and banging on the basketball court in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
It’s a rematch of last year’s game in Cheesehead country when a young and physical UVa team surprised the favored Badgers 60-54. It’s a lesson not forgotten by Coach Bo Ryan’s team, which is unbeaten and ranked No. 8 nationally coming into John Paul Jones Arena.
The topic of conversation after that upset was about Virginia’s toughness, how the Cavaliers played so physically and with such heart. Afterward, Ryan exclaimed that UVa’s Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins “willed their team to win.” The two big men combined for 25 points and 17 rebounds.
Guess what? Mitchell and Atkins are back. And, they’ve got help in the form of 7-foot Mike Tobey, transfer Anthony Gill and Justin Anderson on the boards.
“Coach reminds us of that stuff and in our scouting report it will say, ‘These guys killed you on the boards last year,’” Badger sophomore forward Sam Dekker told the Madison Cap Times. “That’s just for them to put that little seed in you, thinking we’ve got to outwork [Virginia] this year. Whenever you can win the physical battle up front, it’s going to help you.”
Dekker played 21 minutes last season and didn’t grab a rebound.
“We didn’t have any toughness in that game and I feel like we’ve got something to prove,” said junior center Frank Kaminsky, who scored a school-record 43 points against North Dakota earlier this season. “[Virginia] beat us up the whole game inside and outside.”
Clearly it’s Wisconsin’s intention to come into JPJ tonight and physically take it to the Wahoos. Easier said than done.
For the first time in Tony Bennett’s five seasons at UVa, his Cavaliers are built inside out, so the strength of his team is down in the paint where they have dominated most teams they’ve faced.
Virginia has been as solid on defense as has been the norm, presently ranked No. 3 nationally in scoring defense (53.5 per game). Meanwhile, Wisconsin, which has finished No. 1 nationally in scoring defense the past few seasons, has plummeted in those rankings thus far in 2013, all the way to No. 72, while giving up an average of 66.3 points per game.
Rebounding has also been somewhat of a question mark with the Badgers, who rank No. 131 in the country in total rebounds as opposed to Virginia, which ranks No. 48.
Toughness, physicalness? Bring it on. Mitchell, a senior, welcomes that kind of challenge and his fellow wide-bodies in the lane are always up for a good tango or two.
Bennett, who formerly was an assistant coach at Wisconsin for his dad, Dick, and for Ryan, has been experimenting with various combinations to see what works against different types of opponents. Last weekend in Corpus Christi, the UVa coach liked what he saw.
Bennett realizes that Mitchell and Atkins are the two better defenders of the big men, while Tobey and Gill are perhaps more offensive minded, and he even used Anderson at the four spot a little down in Texas. The fact he has the depth to mix and match can cause an assortment of headaches for opponents.
“I’m not married to the fact that (Mitchell and Atkins) can’t play together,” Bennett said. “Gill is aggressive. He likes contact and can be a matchup problem.”
Last year at Wisconsin, UVa won the rebounding battle, 36-25, although it seemed like a much wider gap.
That’s the same kind of effort that Bennett wants to see from his team tonight, fighting for rebounds, diving for loose balls, leaving nothing to chance. He saw some of that in the Texas tournament, although he looked to his bench for inspiration at times.
“We came out and played with much more activity,” Bennett said of his team’s responding to an early challenge. “I brought guys off the bench for more activity on both ends of the floor and the tone changed.
“I think it’s important that we’re real active,” Bennett said. “It’s hard to know if your team is going to come out and play like their hair is on fire. That needs to always be there for us. When we are casual, it never works out for us. We have to play at an intense level.”
Having a deep bench helps with that notion. If someone is dogging it, there’s someone there to take his place. That’s motivation.
The Cavaliers learned a few things in Texas, like how to finish, something they didn’t do in letting VCU off the hook a couple weeks ago. They learned about being solid at the end of the game from the free throw line and making a big stop when needed, all things that really good teams do.
Can they do all the things on Bennett’s check list tonight against a Top 10 team? Only time will tell.
It’s the type of game that Virginia NEEDS to win. If the Cavaliers are to show the rest of the ACC that they are indeed worthy of the preseason prediction that ranked them No. 4 in the basketball-rich league, then they need to develop some of that swagger now.
Virginia needs to show that it belongs and there’s no better way than to knock off a Top 10 from the Big Ten.