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The (Tobacco) Road To The Final Four: Don’t Sleep On Virginia

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In its rematch with UNC, Virginia played the brand of basketball that has been successful in the Tony Bennett era. Despite some ups and downs this year, the Cavaliers remain dangerous.


It would be difficult to find anyone who would describe Virginia basketball as pretty.

Unless your name is Tony Bennett, of course.

The Cavaliers head coach is overseeing another NCAA Tournament team in Charlottesville, as London Perrantes and the Cavaliers continued to put behind their extended offensive slump and breathed a little easier this past Monday night in a 10-point home win over ACC leader North Carolina, which was held to a mere 43 points—its fewest since a 47-40 loss at Duke in 1979 before the institution of the shot clock. In the process, the Cavaliers assured themselves of another 20-win season.

Despite UVA essentially being a lock for the upcoming Big Dance, the win served as the team’s most significant victory of the 2016-17 campaign. It also put Bennett in exclusive coaching territory.

Entering the UNC-UVA showdown, there were six coaches who had led programs to at least six straight winning seasons in the ACC: Duke’s Vic Bubas and Mike Krzyzewski, UNC’s Frank McGuire, Dean Smith and Roy Williams, and Maryland’s Gary Williams. With the win over the Tar Heels in rowdy Charlottesville, Bennett joined that elite group.

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett has his Cavaliers playing much better basketball as of late. (Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Following Saturday’s regular-season finale against Pitt, the Cavaliers will move onto the ACC Tournament, where they fell to Monday night’s victim, UNC, in the championship game last season. At this point in his tenure, it would not be a wise move to count out Bennett’s squad when the ACC convenes in Brooklyn for play at the Barclays Center.

While many college basketball fans may remember the large blown second-half lead to Syracuse last year that prevented the Cavaliers from reaching the Final Four, the 47-year-old Bennett was able to break through and earn his first Elite Eight appearance in his 10th season as a head coach, his seventh with the Cavs. He has made the Virginia basketball brand relevant behind stout defense and a slow-tempo offense that squeezes the life out of the basketball.

“Some people probably don’t like [what happened Monday night]…because it was low-scoring,” Bennett said after the win over the Tar Heels. “But that’s the only way we’re going to beat a team like Carolina.”

Pretty? No. Effective? Yes.

While a recent four-game skid that preceded its current two-game win streak took some of the luster off of this season, this is still the same Cavs team that headed into its road non-conference showdown with No. 1 Villanova at 16-3, falling only after a Donte DiVincenzo tip-in at the horn for a two-point loss. The Cavaliers blew a 12-point lead with 10 minutes left in that one.

Blown leads, like the 16-point advantage they had in the second half against Syracuse the Elite Eight, have been a real issue for the Cavaliers. Not even ACC player of the year Malcolm Brogdon could prevent last year’s collapse against the Orange, as he went 2-of-14 shooting in the final game of his college career.

Shooting slumps have often been the main reason for such blown leads.

But the Cavs started to break out of their slump in a 70-55 win at NC State last Saturday. And it was freshman Kyle Guy who led the way. He scored 19 points to lead a squad that shot 49 percent and made 11 of 16 3-pointers en route to snapping a four-game skid. Bennett, along with Cavs fans, finally enjoyed a refreshing offensive display for a team that seemingly forgot how to score. The effort from Guy came at the right time, especially considering he had scored a combined 17 points in his last five—including going scoreless in the last two—heading into the game against the ‘Pack.

Virginia G Kyle Guy has been a big part of the Cavaliers’ offensive resurgence. (Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

While many wondered why Guy was not playing more than he had been, the fact that he is getting extended minutes now shows that Bennett ultimately made the right move. Perhaps Guy, who scored a game-high 17 points (including going 5-of-7 from downtown) against UNC, could have made more of a difference during the skid. However, the time to peak is now. And that’s exactly what the Cavs are doing.

Perrantes, who is the unquestioned leader of this team, made back-to-back 3-pointers to ignite an 8-0 run that gave Virginia a nine-point lead that made the game out of reach for UNC. UVA was 10-of-24 from downtown, and the Cavaliers committed a season-low four turnovers. Efficient, slow-paced basketball. A staple of Virginia hoops.

But that defense though…

As vital as it was to play better offensively, the defense that Perrantes played on UNC star Justin Jackson was perhaps even more important. Jackson, who is the Tar Heels’ best scorer, went 3-of-10 shooting for just seven points, which was nearly 12 points below his 18.8 season average. Less than two weeks ago in Chapel Hill, Jackson led the way with 20 points in an easy 65-41 victory. UNC had to play a slower pace in that one, too. But nothing like Monday night, when the Cavaliers controlled the game with their tempo and style. They even managed to haul in more offensive rebounds than UNC, which has been a very rare experience for the Tar Heels this season.

Virginia is going to play low-scoring, close games on a fairly consistent basis. And despite the offense looking improved in the second go-around against UNC, the Cavs only shot 32.2 percent from the field. But they were efficient from three-point rage, and they showed their defensive toughness all night, forcing 14 Tar Heels turnovers. Team-wide defense creating offense, another recipe for Virginia’s success.

Bennett said that his team has to be a better defensive team by the end of the year, which is a scary thought considering how well that aspect of the game has been for the Cavs. But he also knows defense is how his team is going to win games. Just as it did on Monday night.

ACC Standings

North Carolina 25-6, 13-4
Notre Dame 23-7, 12-5
Duke 23-7, 11-6
Louisville 23-7, 11-6
Florida State 23-7, 11-6
Virginia Tech 21-8, 10-7
Miami 20-9, 10-7
Virginia 20-9, 10-7
Syracuse 17-13, 9-8
Wake Forest 17-12, 8-9
Georgia Tech 17-13, 8-9
Clemson 15-14, 5-12
Pitt 15-15, 4-13
NC State 15-16, 4-14
Boston College 9-21, 2-15

If the regular season ended today, this would be how the ACC Tournament would set up.

Do Georgia Tech and G Josh Okogie need a few more wins to make the NCAA Tournament? (Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)

Tuesday, March 7

Clemson vs. Pitt
Wake Forest vs. Boston College
Georgia Tech vs. NC State

Wednesday, March 8
Virginia vs. Syracuse
Clemson/Pitt vs. Duke
Wake Forest/Boston College vs. Virginia Tech
Georgia Tech/NC State vs. Miami

Thursday, March 9
North Carolina vs. Virginia/Syracuse
Louisville vs. Clemson/Pitt/Duke
Notre Dame vs. Wake Forest/Boston College/Virginia Tech
Florida State vs. Georgia Tech/NC State/Miami

…Florida State will be looking to bounce back from its loss to Duke, while Miami seeks to rebound from its setback to Virginia Tech. The ‘Noles host the ‘Canes on Saturday.

…Notre Dame will be looking to win its seventh straight game, while Louisville is seeking to bounce back from its loss to Wake Forest. The Fighting Irish travel to take on the Cardinals on Saturday.

Saturday’s best game

No. 17 Duke at No. 5 North Carolina, 8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN: The Blue Devils are looking to sweep the Tar Heels, though it appeared after these teams met in Durham that this would be for the ACC regular-season crown. Only Roy Williams and Co. can claim that title, but Mike Krzyzewski and Co. have shown at times that they can look like the best team in the league. The Tar Heels are looking to prove that Monday’s 43-point output at Virginia was clearly an aberration, while the Blue Devils are looking to get back on track after losing two of their past three games. Coach K’s squad is also looking to get healthy, as Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson are not 100 percent. They both played in the win over FSU, but ankle/foot injuries can be nagging. As for the Tar Heels, their offensive rebounding/second-chance points advantage over most opponents is a big reason why they are the best team in the country in this scribe’s opinion. But there seems to be a lack of intensity at times for the Heels. There shouldn’t be any of that lacking on Saturday night in Chapel Hill for the best rivalry in college hoops.

Here’s your ACC performance of the week:

There were bigger statistical performances this past week, but the Cavaliers desperately needed someone to step up on the offensive end. And Guy was the guy to do so.

Enjoy the final weekend of the regular season!

MORE: College Hoops Weekend Primer – Best Games, Bets for March 3-5

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