Most pressing is Joe Harris’ broken left hand, sustained in Saturday’s 70-52 defeat at North Carolina. Virginia’s second-leading scorer was clearly handicapped Tuesday, missing 4-of-5 shots and committing three turnovers in 21 minutes.
The Cavaliers (19-6, 6-5 ACC) are offensively challenged at full strength, and without Harris’ perimeter shooting and sage presence, an extended slide is possible. Just look at the remaining schedule: Maryland, at Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Florida State, at Maryland.
Virginia has yet to face Maryland but is 0-3 this season against the others. Think Saturday’s home game against Maryland is extra-large?
Think the Cavaliers need Harris’ hand to heal ASAP so he can lose the contraption and regain his form?
But Harris’ injury doesn’t excuse some of Virginia’s other issues against Clemson.
The Cavaliers committed 18 turnovers, 6.5 above their average. Granted, freshman Malcolm Brogdon, Harris’ replacement in the starting lineup, had four in a season-high 34 minutes. But Mike Scott, Sammy Zeglinski, Akil Mitchell and Jontel Evans (career-high 17 points) combined for 10.
Those giveaways wasted a 50-percent shooting night that heretofore was foolproof for Virginia. The Cavaliers were 9-0 in previous games this season in which they made at least half their shots. In Tony Bennett’s three seasons as coach, they’re 21-3 in such games.
As at North Carolina, Virginia’s defended poorly in the second half Tuesday. Clemson shot 53.8 percent after intermission, and overall, the Tigers scored 32 of their 60 points in the paint.
Clemson forward Devin Booker overpowered the Cavaliers inside for 10 second-half points.
“He took advantage of us getting worn down as the game went on,” Bennett said. “He ducked in hard on the inside and his physicality showed. He played like a man out there.”
Calling Assane Sene. The 7-footer’s expected early-March return from a broken ankle might bolster the Cavaliers’ interior defense.
All of which leads to the overarching question that will frame the next three-plus weeks: What must Virginia do to secure its first NCAA tournament bid since 2007?
An unknown and immeasurably large element of the equation is how other contenders perform. There’s no telling how the likes of Alabama, Brigham Young, Iowa State and Minnesota, to name four, will fare and how their credentials will compare to Virginia’s.
What we do know is this: Tuesday’s loss dropped the Cavaliers from 34th to 41st on the Rating Percentage Index updated daily at CollegeRPI.com. That’s still a solid ranking for a tournament hopeful.
Virginia is a credible 3-3 versus the top 50 – the wins are over Michigan, Miami and North Carolina State – and is 7-4 against the top 100. The Cavaliers “worst” loss is last night’s: Clemson is 155th on the RPI.
An early-season setback to Texas Christian became more palatable Tuesday when the Horned Frogs, led by Virginia Tech transfer Hank Thorns’ 32 points, upset Nevada-Las Vegas 102-97 in overtime.
Back to the what-must-Virginia-do question.
Given their tame, No. 234 non-conference schedule, the Cavaliers are advised to win at least three of their remaining five regular-season games. Were one of the three a victory over North Carolina and/or Florida State, Virginia would be secure.
Absent an upset of the Tar Heels or Seminoles, a 9-7 ACC record probably would be good enough. An 8-8 mark? Cue the anxiety.
Virginia Tech fans can relate. They endured similar chatter each of the past four seasons and were disappointed each year – losing two games to Virginia doomed the Hokies last season, and a Tech sweep this season could do the same to the Cavaliers.
Reasonable Virginia fans will realize that injuries aside, the Cavaliers’ first two-game losing streak of the season is not surprising. North Carolina, with its NBA frontcourt, is Final Four-caliber, and Clemson did wax Florida State by 20 at Littlejohn.
So embrace the bubble talk. Understand that Virginia is oh-so-close and has ample opportunity to prove its merits.
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