The surging Virginia Cavaliers have won six consecutive games and climbed back into AP Top 25 at No. 22 entering the final week of the regular season, which they will begin with a visit to Miami on Wednesday night.
Virginia (21-7, 13-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) has come a long way since Jan. 20. At that point, the Cavaliers had lost four of five games to fall to 12-6 overall, 4-4 in ACC play.
“Losing taught us a lot of things,” 6-foot-9 senior forward Mamadi Diakite said. “It’s not necessarily bad.
“A month ago, we were supposed to be done. That’s what people were saying, but we focused on what we could control.”
That list is headed by Virginia’s trademark defense, which leads the nation in fewest points allowed at 52.6 per game.
The Cavaliers lost three double-figure scorers from last year’s national championship team — Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome, who combined to averaged 44.2 points.
Diakite and 5-9 sophomore point guard Kihei Clark are the returning starters.
The new starters are 7-1 junior center Jay Huff, 6-8 senior Braxton Key and 6-5 junior guard Tomas Woldetensae.
Huff had one of the best games of his career on Saturday in a 52-50 home win over then-No. 7 Duke. Huff, who is from Durham, N.C., nearly had a triple-double, finishing with 15 points, 10 blocks and nine rebounds against his hometown team.
“I’d be lying if I told you I don’t get more amped up for Duke games,” Huff said.
Miami (14-14, 6-12) is on a two-game losing streak, falling to Notre Dame by 16 points and Georgia Tech by six, both on the road. The Hurricanes allowed Notre Dame to shoot 45.2 percent from 3-point range (14 of 31). Georgia Tech, which plays a different style, shot just 2-for-13 from beyond the arc but attacked the rim constantly.
Now the Hurricanes face yet another distinctive system in Virginia, with its suffocating defense.
That may be bad news for Miami senior guard Dejan Vasiljevic, who has long been regarded as one of the ACC’s best 3-point shooters yet is in a slump.
His 3-point percentage was 41.1 percent as a sophomore but has since declined to 36.7 percent as a junior and 34.2 percent this season. In his past three games, Vasiljevic has made just 2 of 16 shots from deep (12.5 percent).
The Hurricanes are led in scoring this season by point guard Chris Lykes, who is averaging 15.2 points. Vasiljevic is second at 13.2, followed by wing guard Kameron McGusty at 13.0.
Rodney Miller Jr., Miami’s 7-foot, 255-pound redshirt junior center, provides some scoring from the post as well as rebounding, averaging 7.6 points and 5.8 rebounds.
Even so, Miami coach Jim Larranaga, 70, is in danger of having his second straight losing season, which would mark the first time that’s happened to him since 1991-93, when he coached at Bowling Green.
Even so, Larranaga, who is under contract through the 2023-2024 season, has no plans to retire.
“I love coaching,” he said. “I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
To avoid that dreaded repeat losing season, it would help Miami to knock off the Cavaliers, who are on a two-game win streak in the series. Miami has not beaten Virginia since February 2017.
–Field Level Media