Syracuse might be undefeated, but the Orangemen aren’t running away with the ACC’s regular season title. More surprising is that it’s Duke, North Carolina or even Pitt that’s presenting the strongest challenge as we move into February. Virginia is quietly putting together a big year, and 17-5 overall and 8-1 in ACC play. Let’s take a look at Virginia basketball, how they’re doing it and what lies ahead.
This isn’t a glamour team by any stretch of the imagination, which explains why you aren’t hearing about them. The Cavaliers only have two double-digit scorers, Malcom Brogdan and Joe Harris. They’re 6’5” and 6’6” respectively and can present a matchup problem for teams with small backcourts, particularly when you throw 6’6”Justin Anderson into the mix as well.
What the Cavs don’t have is great inside play. Akil Mitchell is the tallest player on the team at 6’8”, and while he does a credible job rebounding (seven per game), UVA doesn’t get much in the way of offensive production (also seven per game). The lack of easy points inside can grind an offense to a halt if the shots aren’t falling.
Virginia has made up for it in the most admirable way possible, and that’s to just dig in on defense and then go hard to the boards, lack of size be damned. The first two games of the conference schedule were against Wake Forest and N.C. State, each of whom has since played competitively. Virginia won the rebounding battle by a combined 78-53 in those two games and completely locked down on the defensive end.
Then came a near miss on the road at Duke. The Blue Devils hit ten threes, and while Virginia played well on defense and on the glass, the edges weren’t prohibitive. It’s here that you see the Cavaliers’ ceiling—against a really good team, they just don’t have the star power to bail them out if the opponent can hit from the perimeter.
Virginia still kept its focus and showed what they can do. Harris and Brogdan each scored 16 points in an easy win over North Carolina. Then this past weekend the Cavs went to Pitt, held the Panthers to 31 percent shooting and won 48-45 when Brogdan hit a three-pointer at the buzzer. Pitt is renowned for winning while being physical and the fact Virginia beat the Panthers at their own game on the road speaks volumes.
The sophomore Brogdan has really found his groove in ACC play, and has scored between 16-18 points each of the last six games, and gone for double figures each time out in conference. His consistency is what has elevated Virginia from a marginal NCAA Tournament team in November and December to one currently projected for a 5-seed by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi—and that projection was done prior to the Pitt win.
You would not think in looking at Virginia’s talent that they can hang in the ACC race, but the schedule works in their favor. They don’t play Duke or Pitt again. Their game with Syracuse will be at home on March 1. And the immediate slate is very favorable, with bottom feeders Boston College and Georgia Tech up next. Don’t sleep on the Cavs in this conference race.