Back in 2006, Virginia hired legendary boxing voice Michael Buffer of “Let’s get ready to rumble!” fame to announce the starting lineup for its first-ever game in John Paul Jones Arena.
That night, UVa beat Arizona.
Since then, Virginia has had its share of exciting wins, excruciating losses and everything in between inside its $130 million state-of-the-art facility.
But during that time, there has arguably never been a game with the same amount of buzz heading into it as tonight’s sold-out clash with in-state opponent VCU.
When the No. 25 Cavaliers host the No. 14 Rams, there will be an undisputed-champion-of-Virginia feel in the air.
“This early, to play someone as good as VCU and the uniqueness of them being in the state... it sure adds some excitement,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett.
The game will mark the first time since 1995 that a ranked UVa team will play a ranked opponent from the state.
“I’m really excited for a chance to play against VCU,” said Virginia senior Joe Harris. “I’ve been looking forward to it since we decided to schedule them.”
Virginia (1-0) is coming off a rather ho-hum 20-point win in its season opener against James Madison on Friday.
VCU (1-0) defeated Illinois State by 38 in its first game.
The most interesting aspect of tonight’s matchup is the contrasting coaching styles.
VCU, led by Shaka Smart, is known for its up-tempo identity known as “Havoc,” which propelled the program to a Final Four just three seasons ago.
Virginia, with Bennett’s “Pack-Line” defense, has the more deliberate, grind-it-out approach.
“The reality is that we’re at our best when the game is going faster,” Smart said, “and they’re certainly at their best defensively when they can defend you in the half-court and slow you down.
“And then offensively, personnel-wise, they’ve got some guys who can play fast. I would guess that this year, especially with their depth, that they’ll play a little faster than they have in the past.”
While the two teams haven’t played a regular-season game since 1998, they met in a closed-door scrimmage prior to last season.
“They saw our press, we saw their motion offense, we saw their stingy half-court defense,” Smart said. “That’s definitely a tape that they’re watching closely and we are as well.”
Bennett said the scrimmage served his team well since VCU is the kind of team “you don’t see every day.”
“We were a little different team last year going against them, so hopefully we’re improved,” he said. “There’s a premium against handling the basketball against them on offense and really being ready on defense because of their speed. They’re one of the fastest teams you’ll see -- in transition, in their presses, with their half-court pressure and their discipline.”
Against the Rams, Bennett said he will, at times, put point guards Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes on the court at the same time in order to combat the pressure.
“You’re not going to play perfect against that,” Bennett said, “but you just got to have a steadiness about you and the ability to play on if you make a mistake or two.”
On a personal level, Bennett and Smart have gotten to know each other much better since they joined their respective programs in 2009. This past summer, they served as assistant coaches on the United States U-19 team.
“We spent a ton of time [together], it was really enjoyable,” Bennett said. “I say this sincerely -- I genuinely like Shaka. I respected him and liked him, but spending four weeks really got to know him well...
“We talked a lot of basketball. I think he’s one of the best young minds in the game -- watching him coach and just seeing him interact, I have that kind of respect. Plus, he’s a Wisconsin guy, so that’s another notch in the belt.”
Bennett and Smart had always talked about scheduling a home-and-home series, which will come to fruition when Virginia plays at the Siegel Center next season.
“They were great in that they agreed to play,” Smart said. “I think it’s great for both teams... whoever wins the game, it’s going to be a high-quality win. And the same thing can be said next year.”
Back when he was a player at Green Bay, Bennett said the bigger state teams, Wisconsin and Marquette, never wanted to play. To some degree, those snubs have stayed with him as a schedule maker now.
Bennett’s glad he and Smart were able to work it out.
“I think it’s good for the game, good for your program. It challenges you,” he said. “I feel like to not play, that’s not the way I’m wired.”
The last time Virginia was ranked and played an in-state team that was ranked came in a loss to Virginia Tech in 1995. ... Virginia leads the all-time series with VCU, 10-1. The Wahoos’ lone loss came at the Times Dispatch Tournament, held at the Richmond Coliseum in 1987. ... Smart said none of his current players were ever recruited by Virginia, but that he went after UVa players Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill coming out of high school. “We recruited [Brogdon] pretty heavily. I know him and his mom pretty well and they’re great people,” he said. “We tried to recruit Gill. Didn’t get much return love there... he’s a guy who’s a very good player.”... Bennett says VCU point guard Briante Weber’s tenaciousness on defense reminds him of former Charlotte Hornet teammate Muggsy Bogues. “He’s got such quick reflexes and reactions,” he said. “He sets their defense... and I think he’s improved every year offensively.”