Night Line: Harris and Wahoos Deliver on the National StagePosted by BHayes on March 1st, 2013
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
When it comes to this Virginia basketball season, the juxtaposition between team on the floor and paper resume has been startling. Tony Bennett’s consistently solid, fundamental approach somehow gave birth to a resume as polarizing as his team is steady; a profile littered with big wins (at Wisconsin) and bad losses (Old Dominion) alike, a 27-game sample of work that left ranking metrics confused enough to place the Wahoos anywhere from #16 (KenPom) to #67 (RPI). Nobody has known exactly what to make of the Cavaliers, so Thursday night’s nationally televised match-up with Duke seemed like as good a time as ever to figure out what Virginia was all about. Thirty-six Joe Harris points and one massive defense of its home court later, and it finally seems like we have a team and resume beginning to match up a little better. What does that convergence mean for the Cavaliers? In all likelihood, another appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Joe Harris was probably a revelation for most of the national audience this evening, as Virginia’s modest profile and slowwwww tempo (only nine teams in Division I have fewer possessions per game) had left the Cavaliers star under the national radar. No longer. Harris dominated the Blue Devils from the opening tip, scoring his career-high 36 from almost every spot on the floor. He hit outside shots, beat both forwards and guards off the dribble, and collected rebounds and loose balls in the painted area. The junior should be a cinch for first team all-ACC but also deserves serious consideration in an ACC POY race that suddenly lacks a clear winner – he has been that good, even before this evening. His 16.6 points per contest makes him one of just two Cavs who average more than seven points a game (Justin Anderson and his 12 PPG being the other), nearly single-handedly replacing the production of departed all-ACC first-teamer Mike Scott. A number of teammates have chipped in with necessary contributions to make UVA the surprise team in the ACC, but Tony Bennett’s club would not be sitting on the precipice of the NCAA Tournament without Joe Harris.
Impressive performance tonight aside, the Virginia resume still looks a little funky. Don’t get me wrong, a win over Duke will add some serious shimmer, but the unsightly RPI number is not going to disappear overnight. It’s hard to feel too sure about anything given the peculiarity of the profile, but Cavs fans should probably feel safe with wins in two of their last three, a reasonable closing stretch — at BC, at Florida State, and vs Maryland. The committee would seem insane to turn away a team that went 12-6 in the ACC with a win over #1 RPI Duke, which is exactly where two more regular season wins would leave Virginia. It’s highly possible that anything short of a four-game losing streak to close the year would be enough at this point, but the level-headed Bennett will do everything in his power to help his team avoid the Duke hangover from which Maryland still seems to be suffering.
A Tony Bennett team will never win a glamour contest, but the program seems to be finding its stride here in year four of his regime. Miami (deservedly) and the Tobacco Road trio (as usual) have dominated ACC headlines all season, but Thursday night gave a national audience the chance to see a Virginia team that can play a little basketball too. Most wins this time of year are viewed as springboards, and barring a collapse, a springboard this one will be. But if you are Virginia, take this one for what it was on a literal level: a victory over the bluest of college basketball’s blue bloods, a team you had beaten just once in your last 18 tries, and a program that has dominated the ACC for two decades. Not a bad night to be a Virginia Cavalier.