Since Virginia’s 35-point loss at Tennessee in December, Virginia coach Tony Bennett says Akil Mitchell has been a changed player.
“I think Akil really has guarded well, he’s getting people open [with screens], he’s rebounding well,” Bennett said. “I think he’s really taken a step forward.”
The numbers back Bennett up.
In 13 nonconference games, including the trip to Knoxville, Mitchell averaged 6.1 points and 5.5 rebounds.
In the 15 ACC games since, the senior forward has averaged 8.1 points and 8.0 rebounds.
Bennett says that by simplifying his game and not trying to do as much, Mitchell is actually producing more.
“He’s understanding his role and how he can impact this team,” Bennett said. “It’s ironic his numbers have gone up. He knows his strengths.”
Tonight, Mitchell looks to continue his improved play when No. 12 Virginia (23-5, 14-1) hosts Miami.
The red-hot Cavaliers, who shot a season-best 64 percent from the field in winning their 11th-straight game over Notre Dame on Saturday, have just three games left in what has become a historic season.
Virginia has already set the school record for most ACC wins in a season (14). A victory tonight would break the mark for most consecutive conference home wins in a season (16) and clinch a top-two seed in next month’s ACC Tournament.
In the win over the Irish, Mitchell was 7 of 7 from the field for a season-high 15 points as Virginia used a 25-0 second-half barrage to pull away.
Mitchell said he had no idea UVa had held Notre Dame scoreless for nearly nine minutes.
“I was blacked out, man,” he said. “I was just playing ball. I looked up when I got over to the sideline and we were up 20.
“The crowd was loud and you’re so focused on the game that you don’t even realize what’s going on.”
Mitchell, who, along with Joe Harris, will be playing in his second-to-last game at JPJ — figures to be matched up with Miami forward Donnavan Kirk. The senior is averaging 1.7 blocks, which ranks seventh in the ACC.
The Hurricanes (14-13, 5-9), who are in 10th place in the conference, have won three of their last four games.
“They start five seniors and are very physical and coach [Jim] Larrañaga is obviously an excellent coach,” Bennett said. “They mix up their defenses and hold a lot of teams to low numbers scoring-wise, so you have to be ready.
“They’ll be coming in here and taking a big swing at us.”
Bennett scoffed at the notion that his team will be looking ahead to Saturday’s showdown with Syracuse, a game that could be the de facto ACC championship game.
“People have been talking about us playing Syracuse for a while,” Bennett said, “but I think we’re smart enough to realize how ready we have to be.
“Miami beat [Boston College] by 27 after BC had just beaten Syracuse, so we have to be as ready as we can. I think it’s foolish, and I think our guys would be foolish, to look past anybody.”
After having his teams play man-to-man defense for the vast majority of his coaching career, Larrañaga’s team is now playing mostly zone. Throughout the season, Miami has played a mix of 1-2-2, 2-3, 1-3-1, box-and-one, triangle-and-two and man-to-man...Kirk, a 6-foot-9 senior, played 1 1/2 seasons at Miami before transferring to DePaul and then transferring back to Miami for his final year of eligibility...Bennett will be going for his 100th win as coach of Virginia.