The Virginia Cavaliers are back. Or rather, they never went away, other than that whole “first #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed” thing. Tony Bennett’s team has now gone 47-3 over their last 50 games, and they got a measure of revenge last night and in the process have now surged to the top of the college basketball world again. They are drawing us in, and will likely be near the top of the college basketball world again heading into March.
No, they did not get to face Maryland-Baltimore County, but they did play the last team before UMBC to beat them, when they lost a home game in overtime last February to Virginia Tech. The Hokies went into last night’s game as a Top 10 side, and left it with a crushing 22-point defeat. They have now started the ACC schedule with four wins by an average margin of over 20 points, and that includes games over likely tournament contenders Virginia Tech and Florida State.
A lot of it looks the same if you’ve seen the Cavaliers’ dominance in the regular season. They play at a slow tempo, and have somehow gone slower, as they are 353rd in the country in pace of play (Reminder: there are 353 college basketball teams). They smother teams defensively with their pack line defense. They are limiting opponents to a ridiculous 41.8% effective field goal percentage.
If you want to point to a difference, a sliver of hope that this team could be the one that breaks through in single elimination play, it’s that the offense has also matched that efficiency. This is the best offense since Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill led the 2016 squad to the Elite Eight. They don’t turn the ball over and they can shoot. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome are both shooting over 40% from three-point range (Guy is at 46.7%). DeAndre Hunter, who missed last year’s tournament upset, can score all over the court.
They’ve got a big showdown with Duke on Saturday in Cameron Indoor. Duke is coming off the loss to Syracuse, and Virginia can slow down the Blue Devils. In Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, it’s #1 versus #2, but it is Virginia who has moved to the top spot after the last week of action.
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, though, the doubts will linger. Tony Bennett needs wins in the tournament to avoid being this generation’s Ray Meyer and DePaul. Virginia can only answer those questions in March, but they are again raising expectations before getting there.