Virginia basketball is on their way to a third ACC regular season title in five years, with a two-game lead and head-to-head victories over Duke, Clemson, North Carolina, Louisville and Syracuse. The Cavaliers are ranked #1 in the country and an early meeting of the Selection Committee this month revealed that UVA would be the top overall seed nationally if the bracket had to be seeded right now. Las Vegas prices them at 7-1 to win the national championship, shorter odds than Duke. Are these Cavs ready to meet such expectations?
This is the best sustained stretch of basketball in Charlottesville since the early 1980s when they made a couple Final Fours. But those years are also remembered for lingering disappointment—they had the nation’s pre-eminent player in Ralph Sampson and never won a national title and one of those Final Fours came the year after Ralph left.
This current run has taken on a similar feel. Those two previous ACC championship teams were knocked out early by Michigan State. And in 2016, when the Cavs reached the Elite Eight against Syracuse, they merely suffered one of the most excruciatingly awful losses in the history of that round of play.
There are reasons for hope that this year could be different. For one, those head-to-head victories listed above are mostly decisive. Only the Duke win was really close and that was on the road. They beat the other teams by double-digit margins and last night knocked off likely NCAA-bound Miami by nine on the road.
Virginia’s reputation is for defense and as hard as it is to believe, they might even be underrated there. It’s not enough to say they lead the nation in defensive efficiency. Over the course of 14 ACC games, widely regarded as the deepest league in the country, Virginia has only given up 60-plus points three times.
One of those was 63 against Duke, who routinely goes to the 70s and high 80s. Another was 61 against Virginia Tech…in overtime. The Cavs have kept four opponents under 50 points, including North Carolina and Syracuse. And Clemson, currently second in the conference and projected as a 3-seed in the NCAAs, mustered only 36 against Virginia.
The resume is the most impressive in college basketball and as one who likes head coach Tony Bennett a lot, I hope this is the year he gets to a Final Four. But I do wonder if the Cavs aren’t set up for more March disappointment. They only have two players who score in double figures. They don’t have an array of three-point shooters. Most teams that get to a Final Four and certainly those that win a national championship usually have to make at least one comeback along the way. What happens if Virginia falls into, say an early 24-9 deficit because of bad shooting. Can they make it up?
I have my doubts. The good news for Cavs fans is that being on the wrong side of my opinion is not a bad place to be in March. And for the sake of Tony Bennett, I hope that’s one piece of history that continues to hold true.