In what will be the final game at John Paul Jones Arena this season, No. 1 seed Virginia is set to host No. 3 seed Iowa in the quarterfinals of the NIT tonight (7 p.m., ESPN2) and there will be plenty on the line for the Cavaliers.
For the second time this season, UVa (23-11) will be playing for a chance to advance to Madison Square Garden. The winner will advance to the semifinals of the NIT on Tuesday, April 2 to face Maryland.
The Wahoos will also put their 19-game home winning streak on the line, the fourth-longest such streak in Division I. Virginia will also be hosting its single-season, school-record 22nd home game.
The Hawkeyes (23-12) present a serious challenge. Having played against some of the nation's best in the Big Ten this year, they lost close games to teams currently still alive in the NCAA Tournament, including a 62-59 loss to Michigan State on January 10 and a 69-65 loss to Indiana on December 31.
But the same team that has won five of its last six (only loss coming to MSU 59-56 in the conference tournament), also lost 95-79 at Virginia Tech in November.
Virginia, of course, is in no position to point fingers when it comes to early-season losses. Yet the Cavaliers showed well last time out and were led by freshmen in their 68-50 win over St. John's in the second round. Justin Anderson and his career-high 18 points paced UVa and three other first-year players scored in double figures. It was the first time since February 24 that the Cavaliers shot 50 percent or better (54.5 percent) from the field.
Though the tournament has changed a lot over the years, the Cavaliers have plenty of history in the NIT. This is their 13th appearance and they won the tournament in 1980 and 1992.
But in looking for its third semifinal appearance, UVa is also looking for its first-ever win against Iowa. The teams have met only once: In the 1997 NCAA Tournament in Salt Lake City, the Hawkeyes beat the Cavaliers 73-60.
Coach Fran McCaffery, once rumored to be a candidate for the job opening at Virginia before Tony Bennett was hired, has put together a 52-49 record in three years in Iowa City.
Over his 16-year coaching career, McCaffery's teams have gone to the postseason seven times, five of them to the NCAAs.
The Hawkeyes went 9-9 in the Big Ten this season and come into tonight's game averaging 70.4 points per game while giving up 62.6. Iowa is led by junior guard Roy Devyn Marble, the son of the school's all-time leading scorer Roy Marble. The younger Marble posts a team-high 14.8 points per game and ranks in the top 10 in the conference in scoring (8th) and free-throw percentage (4th).
Sophomore forward Aaron White is the team's only other double-digit scorer (13.1) and he also ranks in the top 15 in the Big Ten in scoring (15th), rebounding (12th), and free-throw shooting percentage (10th).
Marble (coaches) and White (media) were each third team All-Big Ten selections this season.
There are two players on Iowa's roster with ties to UVa's program via recruiting. The Cavaliers recruited freshmen Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell. Woodbury was Anderson's roommate at the LeBron James Skills Academy the summer prior to their senior seasons and both Woodbury and Gesell participated in the Top 100 camp on the Ground's at UVa.
In terms of how the teams match up, Iowa and Virginia each are teams that play well at home, struggle on the road, and thrive on efficiency. But the Hawkeyes are statistically better on the offensive glass and get to the free-throw line more often while the Cavaliers boast a better defense and more efficient 3-point shooting.
The Cavaliers rank in the top 16 nationally in eight defensive categories, including their fourth-ranked scoring defense (55 points).
Offensively, UVa averages 64.2 points for Bennett, the first Virginia coach to post back-to-back 20-win seasons since Jeff Jones in 1991-1992 and 1992-1993.
Given the way tickets have been selling, the 14,593-seat JPJ figures to be almost at capacity when the Cavaliers say goodbye to point guard Jontel Evans. A two-time All-ACC Defensive Team selection, the Hampton native is the lone contributing senior on UVa's roster and leads UVa with 122 assists.
All-ACC performers Joe Harris (first team) and Akil Mitchell lead the Cavaliers statistically: Harris is fourth in the ACC in scoring at 16.4 per game while Mitchell ranks third in rebounding at nine per.
But those two have struggled of late. Against Norfolk State in the second round, they had a combined to commit nine turnovers and shoot 9 of 18 from the field, 7 of 16 at the line.
Against St. John's, Harris scored just seven points on 2 of 7 shooting and was 50 percent at the stripe, only the fourth time all season where he hasn't scored in double figures. Mitchell, meanwhile, scored 11 and pulled in nine boards in that win but committed five turnovers, giving him his worst back-to-back games in that category all season.