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Bennett, players talk NCAA tournament, prep for UNC-W

Hoos hit Orlando for their fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Orlando Practice
Tony Bennett prepares his players before Thursday’s game.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Today at 12:40, Virginia tips off against UNC-Wilmington as they try and make a run deep into the NCAA tournament. Virginia’s trip to the tourney is their fourth straight, and the first time in over three decades that the Hoos have made an appearance in back-to-back-to-back-to-back tournaments.

“This is our fourth year in a row, and fifth in six years of getting to the tournament,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett told the media following Selection Sunday. “That was one of the things you want to establish...so, we weren’t sitting there wondering if we were going to get in - we knew we were going to get in - it was just a matter of where we going to play and who we were going to play.”

Over the last three seasons, Virginia has been a one seed twice and a two seed once. This year, the Hoos pulled the five seed position in the East, and are slated to face off against a dangerous UNC-W team as the 12 seed. In the wake of their continued success, the Selection Sunday celebrations have become more subdued, but the players - especially fourth year London Perrantes - know that it’s now or never.

“I'm obviously not thinking about taking it all in as if it's going to end tomorrow.” Perrantes told the media yesterday in Orlando. “I'm trying to prolong that as much as I can, but, yeah, obviously, I'm trying to take everything in for sure.”

Almost immediately, the upset predictions started flowing in, starting with CBS’s Clark Kellogg on the Selection Sunday broadcast.

“It seems that every year we’re in this, we get picked to get knocked off. Obviously everybody talks about the 5-12 game and all that stuff.” Bennett said Sunday night. “You just watch college basketball, watch the NCAA tournament...there’s so many good teams and that’s out of great respect, I’m sure then, for UNC-Wilmington and how well they’ve played.”

The Hoos are coming off of a loss to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, but Virginia’s squad needed the extra time off. This is especially true for third year big man Isaiah Wilkins, who has been battling a brutal virus over the course of the last three weeks. Wilkins played 23 minutes in the ACC tournament matchup with Pitt, going 3-for-3 with eight points, eight rebounds, and an assist.

“I was tired in that game, and one day of like back-to-back games, I think it took a lot out of me.” Wilkins said on Wednesday. “I thought I was going to die against Notre Dame.”

Although the extra rest was beneficial to Wilkins, there’s still no definitive answer on how much of the team’s emotional leader Virginia fans can expect to see today in the first round. “I didn't practice all week at all. I go to practice, but I don't do anything. I've been resting since we got back from New York. So today [Wednseday] I'm going to work out a little bit when we go in there and see how I'm feeling, and it will probably be a game-time decision.”

Coach Bennett added some more information, saying, “He [Wilkins] says he's feeling better, but, yeah, he's lost some weight. He's given us -- he's such a warrior. He's given us whatever he can give us in those games, since he's been sick. I think it's just a nasty virus that's gone through him. He's been tested a couple times for mono, and both times it's come back negative, which is good. So we're just trying to be as smart as we can. Obviously, he's the heart and soul of this team in many ways, but we'll see where it goes after today.”

Instead, the Hoos will have to rely on big men Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite, and Jarred Reuter to help neutralize one of the NCAA’s best shooters in Devontae Cacock. Reuter, at 6-7, 243, matches up almost identically with the 6-7, 240 pound Cacock. Virginia should have a height advantage over the smaller Seahawks, something the Hoos need to utilize early and often.

“Some of the coaches have been preaching that we throw the ball inside and be able to get easier baskets doing that,” Devon Hall said yesterday. “So, we have guys like Isaiah, Jack, and Jarred who have guys on their back and they have good post position. Just throw it in and let them make plays.”

Another part of UNC-W’s game that the Hoos will have to handle is their fondness for the press. With Perrantes, Hall, and the first year duo of Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, Virginia should be able to break the press, and will have to keep UNC-W from getting out in transition.

“They [UNC-W] do a good job.” Bennett said. “They have a few different kinds of presses. They can run and jump. They can make it hard to get it inbounds. They can trap you and just try to disrupt you with their quickness. So, they do a good job of that, and they turn that into offense.”

“I’m very thankful.” Bennett stated of the whole experience. “You’ve got to love the challenge. It seems that every year the parity in NCAA basketball is even more prevalent and then obviously you’re going to play a really good team.”

No matter what, the Hoos will have to bring grit and toughness to today’s game, because as Bennett succinctly put it, “...soft doesn’t work in March”.

Virginia got to take the court in Orlando after arrival, so check out the clips here:

Hoos take the court on TruTV (search for your channel listing here!) at 12:40, so plan for that long lunch and stay with Streaking the Lawn for all your coverage.