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Defense-Focused Virginia Riding High In ACC

by David Elfin
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Head coach Tony Bennett of the Virginia Cavaliers (credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Head coach Tony Bennett of the Virginia Cavaliers (credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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It’s not a feel-good men’s basketball story like those at George Washington or American since this program wasn’t down last season. It’s not a “which team is going to show up tonight?” drama like the teams at Maryland and Georgetown regularly put their coaches and fans through.

All Virginia has done this year is win in efficient, cold-blooded fashion. The ACC is full of powerhouse programs like Duke, Syracuse, Pitt and North Carolina, but as the conference schedule winds down, coach Tony Bennett’s defense-first Cavaliers are the surprising front-runners and are ranked 12th in the nation.

Heading into tomorrow night’s game against mediocre Miami in Charlottesville, UVa is a stunning 23-5 overall, including a school-record 14-1 in the ACC. Its only conference loss came on a late, lucky three-pointer at Duke.

In their previous four seasons under Bennett, the Cavs went 5-11, 7-9, 9-7 and 11-7 in the ACC. Sophomore guard Malcom Brogdon, who missed last season while recovering from foot surgery, and freshman guard London Perrantes weren’t part of last year’s squad that went 23-12 and settled for an NIT berth. However, the cast of characters in Charlottesville is otherwise pretty much the same.

Only Brogdon (12.3) and senior sharp-shooter Joe Harris (11.5) – a preseason All-ACC pick — average as many as nine points. Only senior forward Akil Mitchell (6.8) and Brogdon (5.7) average more than 4.1 rebounds. Perrantes (3.7) is the only Cavalier averaging as many as 2.5 assists. But Virginia leads the nation in defense, allowing just 55.2 points per game, but that’s just four tenths of a point less than last year when it finished fifth. The offense is scoring 65.9 points per game, up an average of just 1.7 from 2012-13.

So the stats aren’t that much different. And when UVa lost four of its first 13 games to Virginia Commonwealth (at home), Wisconsin, Green Bay and Tennessee (by a shocking 35 points), the season didn’t figure to be much different than last year’s close but no NCAA bid result.

Instead, the Cavaliers turned their game up several notches when they began their ACC schedule. Ten of their 14 conference victories have come by double-digit margins with three coming by at least 20 points. After Miami, Virginia welcomes No. 4 Syracuse to John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday before concluding the regular season eight days later at Maryland which it beat 61-53 on Feb. 10.

“You earned the right to have this tremendous opportunity in front of you,” Bennett told his players before they overwhelmed visiting Notre Dame 70-49 last Saturday thanks in part to a remarkable 25-0 run during the second half.

Beating the Hurricanes and the Terps would match the Cavs’ most victories since the glorious Ralph Sampson era (29-4, Final Four, 1981, when they won their only outright ACC regular season title; 30-4, Sweet 16, 1982; 29-4, Elite Eight, 1983). UVa went back to the Final Four the year after the 7-foot-4 Sampson graduated, but won just 11 NCAA games over the ensuing 29 seasons.

This year’s team is like that 1984 squad of Othell Wilson, Rick Carlisle and Olden Polynice in not having any superstars. The Cavs play smart, they play together and they focus on defense.

“They’re really good,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “I think people underestimate how talented they are. They’re so physical. More than any team in the league, they really know who they are at both ends of the floor. They’re a really confident group.”

Or as Brogdon said, “You feel like everything’s going right. You’re playing with supreme confidence.”

Six-foot-11 sophomore center Mike Tobey is Bennett’s only player over 6-8. Harris, Mitchell and little-used guard Thomas Rogers are the only seniors. There might not be a future NBA player on the roster. But Virginia has won 11 straight and has to be considered a true Final Four contender.

“I’m thankful to be in this spot because it has been a while,” said the 44-year-old Bennett, the Coach of the Year in 2007 at Washington State, a year before he coached the Cougars to the Sweet 16. “When that brass ring is coming around, you grab it. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.

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