GAME NOTES: Winners of a school-record 17 straight games at John Paul Jones Arena, the Virginia Cavaliers try to extend their good fortune on Tuesday night as they host the Norfolk State Spartans in the first round of the 76th annual NIT.
Back in the NIT for the first time since 2006, the Cavaliers are considered one of the four top seeds in this year's event, after being left out of the NCAA Tournament. Finishing in a tie for fourth place in the ACC standings with NC State at 11-7, Virginia has an overall record of 21-11 on the campaign after falling to the Wolfpack in the ACC Tournament last week, 75-56.
Not only does Virginia have a winning record in this tournament (15-10) dating back to 1941, but the team also has a pair of championships thanks to successful runs in both 1980 and 1992, defeating Minnesota and Notre Dame, respectively, in the title games.
As for the eighth-seeded Spartans, they were the regular-season champions in the MEAC with a perfect record of 16-0, ensuring that they would at the very least have an invitation waiting for them from the NIT. Unfortunately, any other plans for Norfolk State were brought to a halt by Bethune-Cookman in the conference tournament when the Wildcats captured a 70-68 win in overtime last week during the quarterfinals.
Last year Norfolk State, which is appearing in this tournament for the very first time, stunned Missouri in the second round of the NCAA Tournament before bowing to Florida.
The Cavaliers won the only previous meeting between these programs back in December of 2010 by a narrow 50-49 score at home.
The survivor of this contest will head to the second round where they will clash with the winner of the Saint Joseph's/St. John's battle.
Before losing to Bethune-Cookman, the Spartans were enjoying a 15-game win streak, one of the longest runs in the nation and the longest for the program while at the Division I level. Helping to carry Norfolk State down the stretch was Pendarvis Williams who scored in double figures in 18 of the last 19 contests, averaging 16.6 ppg and 4.9 rpg over the last 12 outings. Brandon Goode was more than just what his name implied, putting up 10.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocked shots per game over the last nine for the Spartans, shooting close to 57 percent from the floor in the process. Based on the entire season, Malcolm Hawkins was the second-best scorer with 11.5 ppg, although he shot just 37.2 percent from the floor and 30.9 percent behind the 3-point line.
It makes sense that the only two players to have started every game for the Cavaliers this season would also be the only ones scoring in double figures as they enter the NIT. Joe Harris heads the list with his 16.9 ppg, stemming from his 73 converted 3-pointers, connecting on 43.2 percent of his attempts from long range. Not only was Harris the top perimeter threat for Virginia, he was also second on the unit in rebounding as well with just over four per contest. Taking over the scoring lead for the Cavs in the final few games of the campaign was Akil Mitchell who turned his efforts into 13.3 ppg, thanks to his 54.5 percent precision from the floor. Often creating his own scoring chances, Mitchell cleared almost three offensive rebounds per game and close to nine per outing overall for a team that held opponents to just 55.1 ppg.
Both of these teams had much higher expectations for this year, but at least Virginia is used to being overlooked in the ACC. One has to wonder how much motivation the Cavaliers have for this tournament after just missing out on the NCAA Tournament.
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