The Pack still sits on the wrong side of the bubble according to most experts. While a number of other bubble teams have fallen by the wayside recently, the Pack's win over Boston College did nothing to help its chances of making the field.
So that leaves the Pack in the position of desperation – a win keeps them precariously on the bubble. A loss essentially bumps them out of the discussion. The team has passed the eye test for much of the season and the players, not surprisingly, are convinced they belong in the field.
"I believe we are one of the top 68 teams in the country," C.J. Williams said. "I know a lot of people do. We are coming in here with confidence. Our goal is to win each individual game and to win an ACC Championship. That way we don't have to worry about people making decisions for us."
All of it combines to make today's contest with Virginia the most important game of the season for the Pack. There are no other games to make this up – if the Pack loses it drops off the bubble and into the NIT – extending its streak of seasons without an NCAA appearance to six years.
Pack fans might remember the Cavaliers from earlier in the season, when Mike Scott and company eked out a 61-60 win in the RBC Center. The Pack got off to a bad start, trailed by as many as 10 points late in the second half only to rally and get within one in the final seconds. Lorenzo Brown missed a shot at the buzzer and the Pack missed out on another opportunity to beat a top tier ACC team.
"The last game was a tough loss for us, but I think we're going to come in here with a different type of attitude and play our hearts out," Brown said.
The biggest challenge for the Pack will be staying patient and taking good shots in the half court. Virginia simply does not allow fast breaks, so the Pack isn't going to get anywhere near the 31 points that Boston College allowed on the fast break Thursday afternoon. If the Pack gets frustrated by the lack of easy baskets and begins settling for jumpers early in the shot clock, its going to be a long afternoon for Gottfried and his team in Atlanta.
"You have to stay patient on both ends – both offense and defense," Williams said. "You can't take the shots that you normally want to take. You have to come out and just get after them defensively and not let them get into a flow."
Defensive patience might be even more important than offensive patience. While Virginia plays at a slow pace, they don't hold the ball – they simply run very methodical sets that results in long possessions. While the Cavaliers will be without Malcolm Brogdon and with an injured Joe Harris, as long as Mike Scott is on the court they will have the best player on the floor at their disposal.
"It's a lot different because you don't really see too many players like Mike Scott who can just shoot all day from mid-range," Howell said. "It's difficult."
Howell, who added that he thought Scott should have been the ACC Player of the Year this season, will share duties with C.J. Leslie as the two try to slow down Scott. Virginia's scoring leader finished off the season with a 28 point, 10 rebound performance against Florida State and a 35 point, 11 rebound performance against Maryland.
It's a game that's about payback and about proving something to the selection committee. A win over Virginia gives the Pack an NCAA tournament resume that's comparable to many other teams sitting on the bubble. Just as importantly, it puts them one step closer to its real goal this weekend – an ACC Championship.