Ty Jerome’s shooting has suffered while he has dealt with a sprained thumb. (Eric Espada/Getty Images)
Following their last game a week ago, several prominent members of the top-ranked Virginia men’s basketball team spoke about how much they were looking forward to a lengthy break from the demands of ACC competition.
The weary Cavaliers had just completed their third road game in 10 days, and it showed as players gathered their belongings and slowly headed for the exit at Miami’s Watsco Center, where they had won, 59-50, to secure a double-bye in the ACC tournament.
Ty Jerome’s right hand was wrapped in ice to limit swelling in his sprained thumb. Isaiah Wilkins moved gingerly with a sore back that has acted up at times over the last few weeks. Devon Hall and Mamadi Diakite had only recently recovered from flulike symptoms.
“It comes at different times for every team, and I think it was a good time for us,” Cavaliers Coach Tony Bennett said of the week off from games heading into the closing stretch of the regular season. “Hopefully let some guys refresh their bodies and heal up a little bit.”
During the hiatus, the Cavaliers not only received some much-welcomed rest — Bennett gave his players consecutive days off last week after they came back from South Florida — but they also moved within one win of securing the top seed in the ACC tournament and at least a share of their third conference regular season championship under Bennett.
[NCAA bracket projection: Cavs are overall No. 1 seed, and there’s a lot more ACC on the bubble]
Virginia (24-2, 12-1) has four games left in which to do so, starting on Wednesday night against Georgia Tech (11-16, 4-10), loser of five in a row, at John Paul Jones Arena.
The Cavaliers hold a three-game lead over second-place Duke and own the head-to-head tiebreaker courtesy of a 65-63 triumph on Jan. 27 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
North Carolina and Clemson are the only other programs that can finish with the same ACC record as Virginia, but the Cavaliers also claim head-to-head tiebreakers over both schools.
In addition, the remainder of Virginia’s schedule includes three games against opponents among the bottom four in the conference.
“You always start the year and want to be about the moment, but you want to have a chance to win and be part of ACC regular season championships,” Bennett said. “With this league and the depth and the amount of games, that’d be a tremendous thing to do, so to have that opportunity at this stage with some games left is really good.”
The Cavaliers, despite players with nagging ailments, head into the final two weeks of the regular season having avoided major injury, giving them a significant advantage over a host of other ACC programs not blessed with such good fortune.
Jerome has continued to practice with tape around his thumb and hand, according to Bennett, but might be able to play without such protection in the near future, depending on the stability of the finger.
The starting point guard has been limited the last two games while wearing a soft cast after spraining his thumb in practice, shooting a combined 5 for 18, including 1 for 12 on three-pointers.
Jerome did have seven assists, his second most in a game this season, against Miami.
“It’s getting better,” Jerome said following the win against the Hurricanes in which he scored six points and went 4 for 6 from the free throw line after going 19 of 20 over his first 25 games. “I’m not going to complain about it, but these eight days will hopefully help, and I hopefully won’t have to wear tape or a cast, and hopefully it will be gone.”
The Yellow Jackets, meantime, are set to play their third consecutive game without starting point guard Jose Alvarado, who fractured his left elbow during an 80-69 loss to Duke on Feb. 11.
The freshman is out for the rest of the season, Coach Josh Pastner announced last week.
Alvarado was the second-leading scorer on the team and one of two players to start every game this season for Georgia Tech. The other is center Ben Lammers, himself nursing a sore ankle.
Senior Tadric Jackson has moved into the starting lineup in place of Alvarado and led the Yellow Jackets with 17 points in Saturday’s 76-56 loss to visiting Virginia Tech.
Virginia beat Georgia Tech, 64-48, in the first meeting on Jan. 18 in Atlanta and has won six of the last seven in the series.
“They do their thing, and they’re really, really good at what they do,” Pastner said of the Cavaliers. “They’re not really good, they’re exceptional at it. For us, we’ve unfortunately been hit with the injury bug. It’s just hard to win in this league when you don’t have the depth and you get hit with some injuries.”