Standing in the bowels in the Dean E. Smith Center on Saturday afternoon after Virginia's 93-81 loss to North Carolina, it dawned on guard Jontel Evans that U.Va.'s quest to become a serious NCAA tournament candidate wasn't getting easier.
Considering UNC's four-guard lineup presented significant problems for U.Va. (18-7 overall, 8-4 Atlantic Coast Conference), a trip Tuesday night to No. 2 Miami is going to be even more troublesome based on the kind of athleticism the Hurricanes have on the perimeter and in the post.
"(UNC was) the most athletic team," said Evans, a Bethel High graduate, when comparing U.Va.'s opponents this season. "It's crazy, because Tuesday we're going to play an even more athletic team."
After escaping Clemson on Sunday night with an ugly 45-43 win on the strength of 6-foot-11 forward Kenny Kadji's 3-pointer with 36 seconds left, Miami (21-3 overall, 12-0 ACC) is cruising along as one of the most unlikely stories in college basketball this season.
Miami is off to the best start in the ACC since Duke went a perfect 16-0 in the 1998-99 season, when the Blue Devils won the conference's regular season and tournament titles and reached the Final Four.
"The kind of attention we're getting now is the kind of attention like Duke and Carolina get every year, every game," said Miami coach Jim Larranaga, who was an assistant coach at U.Va. from 1979-86 under Terry Holland. "I mean, they're always under the microscope, and our players over the years would look at that and say, 'Man, I wish we had that opportunity to get that kind of exposure.' Now, when you get it, you can't shy away from it."
In addition to Kadji (13 points and 6.5 rebounds per game), Miami is being led by ACC player of the year candidate Shane Larkin (13.2 points, 4.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game) at point guard, guard Durand Scott (13.4 points per game) and 6-10 center Reggie Johnson (9.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game). Miami has five players between 6-10 and 7-foot.
"I think (Larkin is) starting to get the attention as probably one of the best point guards in America," said U.Va. coach Tony Bennett, whose team is 0-5 against Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. "What he's done with his team, his quickness, his completeness is impressive, and if he can get going, you've seen what he does, but they have other guys."
An upset win would obviously do wonders for U.Va.'s NCAA tournament resume. U.Va. was 79th in Ratings Percentage Index projections published by CBSSports.com's Jerry Palm as of Monday afternoon, while Miami was second in RPI.
At UNC, U.Va. surrendered the second-most points ever given up by a team coached by Bennett. Despite the loss, U.Va. shot 58.5 percent from the floor. The last time U.Va. shot better in a game and lost was in 2003 at Clemson, when the Cavaliers made 59.2 percent of their shots in a 78-77 loss.
U.Va. guard Joe Harris continued his recent scorching shooting effort, posting a career-high 27 points on 10 of 13 shooting from the floor, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range. He's shooting 72 percent from the floor (31 of 43) in his last four games, including 67 percent (14 of 21) on 3-pointers.
The UNC game marked the third time in the last four games U.Va., which is just 3-6 away from John Paul Jones Arena this season, has shot better than 54 percent. U.Va. also shot 57.1 percent from 3-point range against UNC, marking its fifth straight game it shot better than 40 percent from beyond the 3-point line.
Though U.Va. has uncharacteristically scored 73 to 81 points in each of its last four games, its normally stout team defense struggled against UNC, which shot 46.4 percent (13 of 28) on 3-pointers. U.Va. was fourth in the nation in scoring defense as of Monday afternoon (54 points per game).
"I think our team defense has to be at its best (against Miami)," said Bennett, whose tallest completely healthy post player is 6-8 forward Akil Mitchell (12.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game). "If it's not, it'll be very difficult for us because of their size, their ability.
"Without the depth and where we're at defensively, we really need to tighten the screws. We probably need to come up with a special performance defensively."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun