The COVID-19 pandemic not only forced the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament in 2020, it also threw a monkey wrench into another hallowed college basketball tradition: Senior Day.
With the NCAA granting athletes an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic, there now are two types of seniors: those in their fifth year and those in their fourth who may opt to return.
When No. 13 Virginia (22-6, 14-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) hosts Louisville (4-26, 2-17) in the regular-season finale on Saturday, the Cavaliers will honor five seniors — including three who likely will play their final college game in Charlottesville.
Point guard Kihei Clark is the only player left from Virginia’s 2018-19 NCAA title team. Jayden Gardner and Ben Vander Plas are grad transfers from East Carolina and Ohio, respectively.
The trio of starters helped put Virginia in position to capture its sixth ACC regular-season title since 2014 before the team sustained road losses last week at Boston College and North Carolina.
The Cavaliers are tied for first place in the ACC with Miami and Pittsburgh. But those teams meet on Saturday, and both already own the tiebreaker with Virginia by virtue of head-to-head victories.
Virginia bounced back from a pair of losses with a 64-57 win over Clemson on Tuesday. Gardner, Armaan Franklin and Isaac McKneely scored 12 points apiece.
Virginia had been in an offensive slump, shooting less than 40 percent in three straight games. Tuesday wasn’t much better as the Cavaliers made 40.7 percent of their attempts, but they controlled tempo against a team that had scored at least 91 points in its previous three wins.
Clemson guards Chase Hunter and Brevin Galloway made only 4 of 17 shots, combining for 10 points as they struggled to get quality looks. Three days earlier in a win at North Carolina State, the duo combined for 43 points on 12-for-22 shooting.
“At this time of the year, you’ll never be successful if you don’t sit down and guard and make people earn,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Your offense can come and go, but the defense always has to be there.”
Virginia’s recent lackluster play can be traced to Feb. 15 when it struggled to a 61-58 win at Louisville, with El Ellis (21 points) nearly propelling the Cardinals to the upset.
Ellis, the second-leading scorer in the ACC, has been the shining light in a lost season for Louisville. In the Cardinals’ last win, Ellis scored 28 points in an 83-73 victory over Clemson.
Ellis took his flowers Tuesday when Louisville played its final home game, falling to Virginia Tech 71-54. But the senior guard could be back next season, depending on his NBA stock.
“My mindset right now is to test the waters,” Ellis said on Monday.
Louisville trailed throughout the second half against Virginia Tech. A pair of 3-pointers by 44 seconds apart by Ellis and JJ Traynor got the Cardinals close at 50-47. But aside from those two shots, Louisville missed its other 12 attempts from deep.
Afterward, frustrated Louisville coach Kenny Payne questioned his team’s effort.
“I ask these players every day, ‘Do you understand what it means to be in that jersey and what, fully, you have to sacrifice to be in that jersey?’” Payne said. “I don’t think a majority of them do.”
–Field Level Media