Virginia Aims to Beat Syracuse to Prove Superiority in ACC

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistFebruary 28, 2014

Virginia coach Tony Bennett has the Cavaliers pointed in the right direction.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett has the Cavaliers pointed in the right direction.Lance King/Getty Images

If it's true that numbers don't lie, then Virginia is obviously the best team in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season.

The surprising Cavaliers enter Saturday's ACC showdown against Syracuse on a 12-game winning streak that has boosted their conference record to 14-1. That puts them at the top of the ACC standings with only the home game versus the Orangemen and a road tilt at Maryland remaining on the regular-season schedule.

But the other number that stands out is this: $5,000.

That's the amount that was offered to one Virginia season ticket holder for a pair of lower-level seats at John Paul Jones Arena that normally have the combined value of $112, according to The Daily Progress newspaper. The Daily Progress also duly noted that ticket prices "continue to soar for arguably the biggest basketball game to come to Charlottesville in more than three decades." 

Ticket prices aside, this is a huge game.

For Virginia, 24-5 overall, it is the chance to show a nation that it's for real heading into next week's ACC tournament and the more important NCAA tournament that will soon follow. Everything the Cavaliers have worked for this season, everything they've tried to make the pollsters and pundits forget since a stunning 75-72 loss at Green Bay on Dec. 7, appears to be on the line.

And no, they weren't playing the Green Bay Packers.

Despite their stellar work since then, the Cavaliers are ranked just 12th in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and only slightly better at 11th in the USA Today coaches poll. Syracuse, undefeated and the undisputed No. 1 not only in the ACC but also the nation until recent losses to Boston College and Duke, checks in at No. 4 in the AP poll and No. 5 in the coaches poll.

Duke, by the way, also is ranked higher than Virginia in both polls (No. 6 in AP, No. 7 in USA Today poll). There is some solid reasoning behind this, as Duke gave the Cavaliers their only ACC loss of the season, 69-65, in Durham Jan. 13.

But while the Blue Devils have lost twice since then—in overtime at Syracuse and at North Carolina—it was Virginia's last stumble.

It's true that Virginia has played an easier ACC schedule, and for that the now-bloated conference is to blame.

How much fun would a rematch with Duke have been at John Paul Jones Arena? How much would those tickets have gone for? But it won't happen.

The Cavaliers didn't play at Syracuse or at North Carolina in this regular season, either. But that's not their fault. They did win at Pittsburgh, beat North Carolina by 15 at home and went on the road to pummel North Carolina State by 31.

That leaves this lone game against Syracuse as Virginia strives to prove it is deserving to be called ACC regular-season champion.

Feb 22, 2014; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Virginia Cavaliers forward Evan Nolte (11) knocks the ball from Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Eric Atkins (0) as Cavaliers guard Joe Harris (12) defends in the first half at John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers wo
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As noted by The Daily Progress, a win would give Virginia an outright regular-season ACC championship for the first time since the 1980-81 season, when Terry Holland was the coach and a 7'4" sophomore by the name of Ralph Sampson won the first of his three consecutive National Player of the Year awards.

That was a long time ago. 

Tony Bennett, Virginia's coach, knows he still has work to do to convince folks, even in his own household. He told The Daily Progress that his son Eli, who is 11, has been walking around the house chanting for Syracuse.

"He starts this little chant, 'Cuse! Cuse!,'" Bennett told the newspaper. "I was a little mad at first but then I said, 'All right, he's only 11. I guess I should give him a break." 

No offense will be handed any such breaks Saturday, as the game will feature two of the finest defensive teams in the land.

The Cavaliers have been winning despite having no scorers average more than Malcolm Brogdon's 12.4 point per game and Joe Harris' 11.5. They hold opponents to 54.7 points per game and .382 field-goal shooting.

The 2-3 matchup zone favored by Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is legendary no matter the season, but this year the Orangemen have executed it to perfection most outings. They surrender just 58.5 points per game on .406 field-goal shooting. 

But if you want to see the contest in person, it's going to cost you. Bennett told The Daily Progress that he isn't surprised to hear of inflated ticket prices for Saturday's showdown.

"People have been wonderful," he said. "I think they are really rallying around the group of guys because of how they're playing and what they represent."

It's time now for the rest of the ACC—and the nation—to recognize the Cavaliers for the great team that they are. Only mighty Syracuse stands in the way.


Joe Menzer has written one book about college basketball entitled Four Corners and now writes about it for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz