After Slow Start, Virginia Now Looks Like a Legitimate ACC ContenderPosted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 15th, 2014
Even after Monday night’s 69-65 loss to Duke, Virginia looks like it is built to stay near the top of the ACC for the rest of the season. On a night when Duke played inspired basketball and had the famous Cameron Indoor Stadium home court edge, it took a fortunate bounce on a Rasheed Sulaimon three-pointer to keep Virginia from starting the ACC season with a 4-0 record. In winning their first three games, including Saturday’s 76-45 stomping of N.C. State, the Cavaliers have been winning impressively, with a 22-point average margin of victory. Even in their closest win, a 62-50 victory at Florida State, Virginia held a 22-point lead with 11 minutes left in the game. Undefeated Syracuse is now the perceived ACC favorite, but Virginia is certainly playing at such a high level now that it too must be considered a serious contender as well.
Virginia has clearly turned its season around after a less than impressive December (2-3 record). The Cavaliers hit rock bottom in a 87-52 blowout loss at Tennessee on December 30. After using seven different starting lineups, head coach Tony Bennett has finally found stability with his current starting unit. Virginia is now 8-1 with a group featuring Mike Tobey and Akil Mitchell up front, with Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogden and London Perrantes on the perimeter. After a puzzling lack of production from Harris and Mitchell in the pre-conference part of the schedule, the two senior all-ACC performers have turned things around on and off the court. According to Bennett, “The Tennessee game was a wake up call [for Harris and Mitchell].” He was referring to the fact that the duo has recently taken responsibility for being better team leaders. Tobey has shown signs of fulfilling his potential as a low post scorer (16 points vs. N.C. State), and the versatile Brogdon has been more consistent, scoring in double figures in all four ACC games. The freshman Perrantes’ maturation at the point guard spot has also been a key to the Cavaliers’ recent success, with 16 assists against only five turnovers in conference play. Justin Anderson gives Virginia great energy and athleticism off the bench, and he can defend almost any position. Further quality depth comes from Anthony Gill and Darion Atkins on the inside, and Evan Nolte and Teven Jones on the perimeter. All in all, it’s a nice rotation that has jelled just in time.
The Cavs just completed a tough quick turnaround, facing both N.C. State and Duke on the road in a three-day period, but now they will get a rare three-game home stand as a reward for their troubles. It’s quite probable that we will be looking at a Virginia team with only one loss after that stretch, which will cause many to forget their earlier struggles completely and put them in great position to finish in the upper part of the ACC, as originally predicted. And even better for the Cavs is a schedule that only shows one game each with Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the current league leaders, and their lone game with Duke is now in the books. If Virginia’s situation sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because of what we have seen in the past two ACC seasons. Take a look at the following comparison between this year’s Virginia team (so far), with the last two ACC champions.
While there is certainly a long way still to go, Virginia’s current profile looks quite similar to the last two champs. The constant among all three teams shown here is a top-notch defense. This should remain a strength for the Cavaliers and give them a chance to beat anyone else they play. As N.C. State Coach Mark Gottfried said on Saturday, “They [Virginia] are a very physical defensive team.” One of the things that stands out is how Virginia is able to play tough and physical without being whistled for many fouls — the Cavs are currently ranked #30 in opponents’ free throw rate. They play excellent position defense, and it seems as though the Cavs have figured out how to use their chests and hips to make contact while the officials are focused on hands and forearms. It’s a smart way to defend and reflects good teaching and execution. It is worth noting that while Virginia has a strong veteran presence with their two seniors, it can’t match the experience of the other two teams listed above. Miami featured five seniors in its top seven last season, and the year before, Florida State had six seniors playing significant minutes. We will certainly see if Virginia can maintain its current level of play as well as the previous two ACC title winners, but current signs are pointing to Bennett’s team being up to the challenge.