Friedlander: Virginia's loss to Houston won't help ACC's image but could benefit the Cavaliers
Christmas carols, tinsel and twinkling lights aren’t the only visible signs of the season.
Another sure sign that it’s mid-December is the chorus of bah-humbugging coming from the national illuminati over the demise of the ACC as an elite men’s college basketball conference.
The dire predictions, including the hyperbolic “Could the ACC be a 1-bid league” narrative, began before Thanksgiving. And they’ve only increased as Christmas approaches. Even after the conference came out on top 8-6 in the final ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The naysayers were given yet another present to put beneath their tree Saturday with Virginia’s home loss to Houston.
It wasn’t exactly a Chaminade situation.
The Cougars were ranked No. 1 in the nation as recently as last week and came to John Paul Jones Arena as a solid top-5 team. But by beating the 2nd-ranked Cavaliers on their home floor – and at their own game – they succeeded in planting the 1st seeds of doubt about the 1 ACC team that until now had been devoid of visible warts.
Although Virginia’s identity under coach Tony Bennett has and will continue to be its stifling pack-line defense, this version of the Cavaliers has established itself as a legitimate title contender because of its prowess on the offensive end.
These Cavaliers were the highest-scoring of Bennett’s 14 UVA teams through 8 games, all wins, with all 5 starters hitting for 9 points per game or better. Their average of 72.1 points per game was higher than that of their 2019 national championship edition.
And yet, after an impressive opening burst that saw them score the game’s 1st 9 points Saturday, that newfound firepower was nowhere to be found.
Houston limited the Cavaliers to 41.7% shooting overall and 27.3% from beyond the 3-point line in grinding out a 69-61 victory.
Some of the issues can be traced to the Cougars, who came into the game leading the nation in both scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense. It also didn’t help Virginia that junior guard Reece Beekman, who averages 10 points and 47% 3-point shooting, still is hobbled by a sore hamstring.
Then there’s the reality that sometimes, the ball just doesn’t go in the basket.
That’s why Bennett wasn’t all that concerned about his team’s subpar offensive performance. A true defensive savant, he pegged the loss on “a couple lapses” on the other end of the court.
They’re mistakes he described as “mini fractures,” the kind his team can get away with against lesser competition but in not games against teams the caliber of Houston. Or others the Cavaliers are likely to face come March or April.
In that respect, Saturday’s loss could turn out to be a valuable teaching tool.
It’s not about technique. It’s more a matter of focus and effort.
“You can’t say, ‘Well, we’re going to win when our shots are going in.’ No, you’ve got to win games like this with soundness and toughness,” Bennett said. “The head and the heart have to be connected on the defensive end.”
The Cavaliers won’t have to wait long to test their understanding of that lesson. Their next game, Tuesday, will be on the road at No. 25 Miami.
The 11-1 Hurricanes rank among the top 3 in the ACC in scoring and field-goal percentage. Their star, guard Isaiah Wong, is among the most prolific scorers in the league at 16.2 points per game.
Miami is among several ACC teams whose early-season successes continue to be overlooked by a national media obsessed with the struggles of brand name programs Louisville and Florida State, as well as North Carolina’s dramatic fall out of the polls after starting the season at No. 1.
Virginia Tech also has flown under the radar at 11-1, and Duke, surprisingly, hasn’t generated the kind of buzz under rookie coach Jon Scheyer as it did with media darling Mike Krzyzewski in charge.
And oh by the way, those Tar Heels who already were being written off as overrated finally might be getting their act together.
They took advantage of a week without games by playing their best 40 minutes of the season in an ACC win against Georgia Tech last weekend. Then Saturday, they took another step forward by battling from behind to beat Ohio State in a high-level overtime battle at Madison Square Garden.
Their victory won’t fit into the “ACC is down again” narrative the way Virginia’s loss likely will.
But it is a positive harbinger for another season to come – the one whose tell-tale signs include the blooming of flowers, young men falling in love and ACC basketball teams that are being written off in November and December advancing deep into the NCAA Tournament.