From Overlooked to Overachievers: Why Virginia Is Too Good to Ignore

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From Overlooked to Overachievers: Why Virginia Is Too Good to Ignore
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Two weeks ago, it was hard to give Virginia any credit for its shiny record in the ACC.

At the time, the Cavaliers were coming off their best back-to-back wins of the season—Florida State and North Carolina—but both were at home and against teams that have been wildly inconsistent this year.

It was also hard to ignore a couple of blemishes on Virginia's resume: a loss at Green Bay and a 35-point beatdown by Tennessee.

As much as any preseason Top 25 team, the Cavaliers were out of sight and out of mind nationally.

So even when the Cavs got off to a nice start in the ACC and appeared to be playing good basketball again, it was hard to shake that they lost to Tennessee by 35!

But after going on the road on Super Bowl Sunday at Pittsburgh and sneaking away with a 48-45 win, Virginia finally did enough to return to the rankings at No. 21.  

Only, that win, as impressive as it looks considering Pitt was ranked 18th last week, could go in the "Should we really be impressed?" category. The Panthers have a nice record (18-4) and are still ranked (No. 25), but they are also missing their own signature win.

So, even with the ranking, should we really be impressed?

Yes. It's time to let go of Tennessee.

Nine games into the ACC season the results are too dominant to ignore, and the Cavaliers pass the eye test as well.

First, consider that Virginia is outscoring every team in the ACC on a per-possession basis and that includes Syracuse and Duke. (H/t to John Gasaway and his Tuesday Truths.)

ACC Efficiency (Top Five)
Record PPP Opp. PPP Eff. Margin
1. Virginia 8-1 1.10 0.87 +0.23
2. Duke 6-3 1.21 1.04 +0.17
3. Syracuse 9-0 1.15 0.99 +0.16
4. Pittsburgh 6-3 1.12 1.00 +0.12
5. North Carolina 4-4 1.03 0.99 +0.04

It is worth noting that the Cavaliers have not had to play Syracuse—they get them at home on March 1—but they have played at Duke, a 69-65 loss.

When that game gets here, it could potentially be for a conference title and Virginia could have the weapons to at least put up a fight against the Syracuse zone defense.

Virginia's two best players, Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon, are excellent spot-up shooters and knock down 42.2 percent and 40.5 percent, respectively, of their threes.

Virginia's offense has also evolved from last season's Joe Harris Show into a more balanced attack. Last year, Harris kept the Cavs relevant and nearly earned them an NCAA bid with one of the most impressive scoring runs of the season. During ACC play, he had a nine-game stretch where he averaged 22.6 points per game.  

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Harris is actually scoring more efficiently this year, but his minutes are down (32.5 per game to 27.0 per game) and the offense is no longer geared to simply find shots for him. Brogdon, who redshirted last year as he recovered from foot surgery, is leading the team in scoring, and big man Mike Tobey, who moved into the starting lineup when ACC play began, has provided a post presence.

"I think a bigger picture for us is there's a little bit more balance this year," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said on the ACC conference call this week. "Different guys can do some things and that helps. Joe draws so much attention...He doesn't need to take all the shots. At times, we need him assertive, but he's fitting in well to the structure and that's a good sign."

The best is probably yet to come with this Cavs offense as everyone gets more comfortable in their roles, but the team's success so far and going forward is all about Bennett's defense.

Since conference play started, Virginia's defense has been better than any other major-conference team.

Best Major-Conference Defenses (per-possession) in League Play
Opp. PPP
1. Virginia 0.87
1. Florida 0.87
3. Florida 0.88
4. Cincinnati 0.90
5. Louisville 0.92

Bennett has assembled an ideal roster for his pack-line defense. His rotation is filled with length—point guard London Perrantes, at 6'2", is the only one under 6'5"—and the athleticism of Perrantes and Brogdon in the backcourt has produced more turnovers.

During ACC play, Virginia's opponents are giving it away on 22.6 percent of their possessions, per (subscription required), which leads the league.

Bennett's defense is everything that a coach could dream about. The Cavs cause turnovers without gambling, play sound help defense, force tough shots, protect the rim (see chart below) and clean up the glass.

Best NCAA FG percentage defense at the rim
Opp. FG% at rim %shots blocked at rim
1. Green Bay 45.4 21.4
2. Florida State 47.1 17.5
3. UC Irvine 47.9 20.8
4. Michigan State 48.0 16.6
5. Virginia 48.1 19.0

Bennett has to be pleased with all of the above, but more than anything else, he has to love his team's ability to prevent open shots.

The Cavs execute that strategy to near perfection by rarely ever getting out of position, as illustrated below. 

Watch ESPN screen shot
Pitt runs Lamar Patterson off two staggered screens, and he has a step on Joe Harris, which would usually result in an open shot or drive. Virginia's Mike Tobey makes sure Patterson doesn't get an easy look by showing on the screen and Anthony Gill is in a help position in case Tobey's man, Talib Zanna, tries to roll to the basket. Patterson is forced to go one-on-one and misses a difficult turn-around jumper.

It's still hard to determine what the ceiling is for his team, as I'd like to wait and see if the offense continues to evolve and become more consistent. But it's hard to see the defense suddenly dropping off, because Bennett's teams have always been consistent on that end. 

And as for their new ranking and ACC success, both are well earned.

What we're seeing is not the team that lost to Tennessee by 35. The ACC version of Virginia is a legitimate top-15 team. 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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