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.