Virginia: The Quiet and Legitimate Title ContenderPosted by Chris Kehoe on February 20th, 2014
Kansas, Syracuse, Duke, Wichita State, Arizona, Michigan State: These are some of the teams typically first mentioned when discussing this season’s NCAA championship contenders. While Virginia is laden with senior leadership, elite defense, and loved by the advanced metrics, the Cavaliers are rarely mentioned as a contender along with the others. At 22-5 and 13-1 in the ACC, however, the Cavaliers are well on their way to a top-two finish in one of the country’s best conferences. With Syracuse’s surprising loss last night versus Boston College and a tough pair of road games upcoming, Tony Bennett’s team appears to be well on its way to capturing the ACC throne for the first time since a 2007 tie, and their first sole ACC regular season title since 1981.
So why is a projected ACC regular season champion — one that will likely carry 25+ wins into the NCAA Tournament — not getting enough buzz? For starters, the nation is enamored with superstar culture, and Virginia doesn’t have a transcendent individual who is destined for NBA greatness and seated atop all the mock drafts. While this team has several really good players who mesh very well together, they do not have a Julius Randle, Doug McDermott, or Jabari Parker — someone who generates mass publicity and draws droves of NBA front office personnel at their games.
Virginia also embodies another aspect that hurts its national notoriety, and that is its characteristically unsexy style of play. Bennett’s team plays at a very slow tempo – as does the rest of the ACC these days – a product of their stingy defense and methodical but effective half-court offense. While Virginia is not the slowest team in the conference, they do rank 342nd in the nation in that regard. This style is clearly working for the upward-trending Cavaliers as their winning ways really took off after a late December beatdown at Tennessee. That game specifically scared a lot of folks away because of the 35-point margin of victory. Virginia shook off the defeat and has rarely faltered since, losing only at Cameron Indoor Stadium in a close defeat, and winning 13 other ACC games.
Virginia is cruising behind the scoring proficiency of Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon, the rebounding and interior defense of Akil Mitchell and Mike Tobey, and the all-around positive qualities of London Perrantes, Justin Anderson and Anthony Gill. As they head down the stretch with a great chance of capturing the ACC crown, ESPN.com’s most recent bracketology report has pushed the Wahoos all the way up to the #3 seed line. Virginia missed out on last year’s NCAA Tournament with a 21-11 record heading into Selection Sunday, but if they have learned anything from last year’s omission, it is that opportunities only come around every so often. With a mixture of great chemistry, experience, talent and coaching, Virginia appears poised to make a run at the school’s first Final Four in some three decades.