Virginia Has Turned the CornerPosted by Chris Kehoe on January 29th, 2014
Since December 30’s 87-52 beatdown that Virginia suffered at the hands of Tennessee in Knoxville, the Cavaliers have won seven of their last eight games. What Virginia has essentially done is establish itself as a clear member of the upper echelon of the ACC, arguably the third- or fourth-best team in the conference behind Duke and undefeated Syracuse. The Cavaliers sit comfortably at 16-5 and 7-1 in league play, their sole blemish coming in a close loss to Duke in the confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium. Virginia’s most recent victory came at the expense of a reeling Notre Dame team on Tuesday, yet another example of Virginia’s defense and style of play frustrating its conference foes thus far.
The most impressive thing about Virginia’s play of late has been their emphatic victories, thrashing ACC teams by wide margins. They have beaten Florida State by 12 twice, North Carolina by 13, N.C. State by 31, Wake by 23, Virginia Tech by 20, and Notre Dame by 15. Virginia has effectively put the rest of the league on notice that, regardless of its non-conference performance, the Cavaliers are returning senior leaders from a highly successful unit with postseason experience. First and foremost has been the improved play of Joe Harris, which, as noted in an earlier article here on the ACC microsite, is the key to their resurgence of late.
Virginia had trouble with consistency in the non-conference, missing opportunities to bolster its resume in losses to Green Bay, Wisconsin, VCU, and Tennessee. But the ACC is a different animal altogether, and despite those setbacks, ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi still has Virginia projected as a six seed in his latest bracketology update. Virginia won’t lack for more chances at big wins with its upcoming schedule, with a match-up against Pittsburgh on the road and Syracuse at home still to come. Nearly halfway through conference play, Tony Bennett’s club has gained a nice foothold among the top tier of the league, but he could really use at least one win over Pitt or Syracuse to stay there.
The team will also have some good opportunities in the ACC Tournament but in order for that to happen the Cavaliers will require more productivity from senior big man and defensive anchor Akil Mitchell, who is only averaging about 24 minutes per game along with 6.6 PPG and 6.5 RPG. Even without Mitchell awing the nation, sophomores Mike Tobey and Justin Anderson have stepped up in a big way. ESPN.com’s advanced metrics seem to be enamored with Virginia’s play too, leaving them with the distinction of the best BPI of all teams in the month of January. But Virginia can safely put January 2014 in the rearview mirror as they head towards the inevitable hornet’s nest that is the Petersen Events Center and the Oakland Zoo in Pittsburgh as they look to make their mark on February as well.