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Game Preview: Virginia vs. Wake Forest

Tony Bennett appears to have turned Virginia into his own version of Rags To Riches (sorry couldn't resist). So how did he turn a team that won 10 games a year ago into one that sits atop the ACC standings? 

The simple answer: defense. Just like the Cavs in another league, Virginia lets defense be their identity. Although Mike Scott isn't exactly Lebron James, UVA has been able to force teams to play their brand of plodding, ugly basketball. Not paper bag ugly, more...just not that fun to watch. 

The defense is essentially the same as the one Wake runs. The almighty pack line. Between this year and last I've actually heard or read "pack line" more than it's been mentioned that Al-Farouq Aminu's name means "The Chief Has Arrived" and that James Johnson and Jeff Teague left for the NBA. That's how important this defensive philosophy is to both teams.

The pack line has been effective, but half court offense has been the Cavaliers' best friend. 323rd in tempo, UVA is extremely efficient (27th), with a 52% eFG%. They take care of the basketball (5th in country in turnover%) and shoot 75% from the foul line. These are the type of things that help to elevate a so-so basketball team into a successful team.   

Bennett doesn't find himself with All-ACC talent, but he has done a good job of establishing roles and getting his guys to buy into the system. The leader of this team is sophomore Sylven Landesberg, a year removed from a sparkling freshman campaign. Landesberg averages 17.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. Also of note are Sammy Zeglinski (10.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists) and the previously mentioned Scott (13.2 points, 7.6 rebounds). Virginia rides a 10 man rotation that shoots 46% and 41% from 3PT. 

If you looked at their numbers, had no team name and no player names, you would see a surprisingly good basketball team. The beginning of the season was rough--4-4 in the first eight games with losses to USF, Penn State, Auburn and Stanford--but since then, the Cavs have rattled off eight straight, including their conference wins over Georgia Tech, Miami and N.C. State.

So what do the Demon Deacons have to do to spoil UVA's run so far? First and foremost, the Deacs have to continue to make strides in boxing out. UVA gets after rebounds on the defensive end (2nd in the nation in opponent's offensive rebound%), so Wake needs to make sure they grab the rebound and hold onto it. 

On the defensive end of the floor, Wake needs to do what they do best--defend the 3. The Cavs are eighth in 3PT% and this is a battle of the numbers, with the Deacs at 2nd in defending from deep. 

Ishmael Smith, a few days removed from his 20 point, 7 rebound, 6 assist performance, will need to continue to play his game. While Virginia will funnel Ish into the lane, he needs to make sure that his floater is on, he can get an under pass to a big on the block and be able to see the wings for a spot up jump shot. Since Wake practices against each other every day running this defense, they should be extremely familiar with how to attack it. 

If you haven't heard of freshmen C.J. Harris and Ari Stewart by now, shame on you. The two, averaging over 20 points per game, have completely embraced their roles on the team and need to keep it up. Their three point shooting is a refreshing shift for this Wake team and will take the load off of Smith. And it doesn't need to be said, but Al-Farouq Aminu just needs to have the game he always seems to have--15+ points, 8+ rebounds.

It has been nice to see Chas McFarland wake up (no pun intended) the last couple games. He has a gift for grabbing the rebound, especially on the offensive glass, but he needs to stop making that horrible pass from the top of the key and quit shooting that little fadeaway. Tony Woods has looked much better as of late too and hopefully his emotional play will continue to boost his game. There's no question Woods is a physical freak and he is a couple post moves and more control away from being a force inside.  

This is a very winnable game for the Demon Deacons. They are coming home after an emotional victory over UNC and look to be gelling. The guys are having fun, smiling, understanding each other and have improved dramatically offensively since the early part of the season. Wake needs to stay disciplined and force UVA to run a little bit. Wake can't let Bennett's squad dictate the flow of the game. Chances are though, Ish Smith won't let them.

UVA has been the surprise of the ACC so far and their brand of basketball has really sparked a team that had four conference wins last year. At game's end though, I think Wake's athleticism, size and speed will be just a bit too much for the Cavs at the Joel.

Wake Forest: 72

Virginia: 66