Is Surprise ACC Champion Virginia Ready to Contend for a National Title?

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistMarch 1, 2014

USA Today

Everyone who had Virginia winning the ACC back in November, please raise your hand.

Outside of the general Charlottesville vicinity and maybe coach Tony Bennett's father, it's unlikely there were many people who considered the Cavaliers a legitimate contender to win what was supposed to be the super conference to end all super conferences in 2013-14.

But now that Virginia has wrapped up its first outright ACC regular-season title since the Ralph Sampson days of 1981, thanks to a 75-56 win over Syracuse, it's time to answer the question that really matters:

Are the Cavs for real? Are they a legitimate national championship contender?

Each year seems to see a surprise team win one of the power conferences, like when Miami (Fla.) won the ACC title last season. But while the Hurricanes reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 2 seed in 2013, oftentimes these out-of-nowhere schools crash and burn in the NCAA tournament.

(Remember how great New Mexico looked last season, only to fall as a No. 3 seed in the first round to Harvard?)

Steve Helber/Associated Press

That's usually because those teams' styles of play in the regular season didn't translate well to a playoff scenario, where points often come at a premium and the ability to win tight, low-scoring games is essential.

Sounds like Virginia to a T, and Saturday's blowout of Syracuse showed the Cavs have all the ingredients needed to make a deep postseason run. They came in leading the nation in scoring defense at 54.7 points per game, and while Syracuse is no offensive juggernaut the Cavs did completely stifle the Orange's attack, holding them to 35.7 percent field-goal shooting and just 5-of-22 on three-point attempts.

Virginia trailed 28-27 at halftime, and even after the game briefly resembled something other than a first-team-to-60-wins affair for the first few minutes of the second half, the Cavs used defense, rebounding and crisp passing to turn the game into a runaway.

It's much the way Virginia has rolled through the ACC, winning 13 straight conference games since a four-point loss at Duke in early January, a game that saw the Blue Devils get a freak banked baseline three-pointer from Rasheed Sulaimon with 20 seconds left to hold on.

The loss was also the most points Virginia has allowed in more than two months, dating back to the team's lowest point of the season: an 87-52 road loss to a Tennessee team that's firmly on the NCAA tourney bubble.

Since then the Cavs have allowed just 52 points per game and just 50.6 per contest over the last seven outings. Meanwhile, UVa has posted numerous blowouts, and when the offense suffers, the defense is there to carry things along.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - MARCH 01:  Virginia Cavaliers fans hold up signs prior to the game against the Syracuse Orange at John Paul Jones Arena on March 1, 2014 in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Virginia defeated Syracuse 75-56.  (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Im
Rich Barnes/Getty Images

It's the same defense-leads-to-just-enough-offense approach Virginia's Bennett learned as an assistant for his father, the great Dick Bennett, who dominated college hoops at all levels in Wisconsin before finishing up with a solid rebuilding project at Washington State. Tony Bennett took over the WSU gig from his dad, winning 69 games in three seasons in Pullman before landing the Virginia gig.

It's been a slow buildup for Bennett's program in Charlottesville, going from 15-16 in 2009-10 to 16 wins the next season, then up to 22 and 23 wins in 2011-12 and 2012-13 and now with a 25-5 mark heading into a March 9 finale at Maryland.

Bennett's recruiting classes have gotten better over the years, though some of the more noted recruits ended up starring elsewhere. The current crop includes veterans Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris as well as young standouts Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes and Mike Tobey, none of whom average more than 13 points per game but who all can defend like there's no tomorrow.

Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller had Virginia slotted as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament in his latest projections, but that was before the Syracuse win. If the Cavs also win the ACC tournament title, they might even sneak into the No. 1 seed Syracuse seemed to have locked up before losing three of four after a 25-0 start.

Virginia winning the ACC title seems even more improbable considering all the hype that came with Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh joining the league, transferring the unofficial crown of world's toughest conference from the Big East down the Atlantic coast.

But while the Orange held their own until the last two weeks, Pittsburgh faded quickly once league play began, and traditional ACC powers Duke and North Carolina couldn't get out of their own way early before catching fire of late.

Now all that remains to see is whether the Cavs will translate regular-season success into postseason results. Virginia lost in the first round in its last appearance in 2012 and hasn't made it past the first weekend since reaching the Elite Eight behind point guard Cory Alexander in 1995.

Virginia has passed the "eye test" via Saturday's result and the conference body of work as a whole, but none of that really matters once the NCAA tournament begins in less than two weeks.