Friedlander: Hoos the 3rd-best team in the ACC? At least for now, it's Virginia
North Carolina is still the best team in the ACC as we make the turn onto the back 9 of the conference basketball schedule.
The 3rd-ranked Tar Heels stated their case last Saturday with their systematic dismantling of rival Duke. And they still hold a 1-game lead over the field even after Tuesday’s loss to Clemson.
Those results notwithstanding the Blue Devils remain the 2nd-best team in the league, an opinion reinforced by the voters on the Associated Press poll who continue to rank them among the nation’s top 10.
But who’s the ACC’s 3rd-best team?
The answer has fluctuated more often than the notoriously volatile weather in North Carolina this time of year.
Clemson looked the part heading into the new year before turning into a pumpkin at midnight on Jan. 1. Wake Forest, NC State and Florida State did, too, for a week or so each before dropping back into the crowded pack.
Now it’s Virginia’s turn.
Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers have caught fire since a dreadful start that saw them lose their first 3 conference road games – at NC State, Wake and lowly Notre Dame – by an average of 19 points.
They’ve won 7 straight to improve to 18-5 overall (9-3 ACC) while jumping all the way up to No. 34 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. And they’ve done it by looking more like a vintage Virginia team than they did only a month ago.
On Monday, their suffocating pack line defense yielded only 38 points – for the entire game – to a Miami team that came in averaging 80 points.
— Virginia Men's Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) February 6, 2024
If the current trend continues, it will be interesting to see how the NCAA Tournament committee views the Cavaliers come Selection Sunday.
Granted, the members of the committee are different than those who set the bracket for the College Football Playoff. But going by the criteria set by Boo Corrigan and his colleagues back in December, it’s only fair that UVa be judged by how it looks and plays now since it’s no longer the same team it was at the start of the season.
And the Cavaliers don’t just look like a different team than they did in November, December and into early January.
They are a different team.
You’d never know it by looking at their individual stat lines, but UVa’s transformation into a tournament team can be traced directly to the insertion of forward Jordan Minor and the return of guard Dante Harris into the regular rotation.
“That gives us a different look,” Bennett said after the game Monday.
Minor, a 6-8 transfer from Merrimack, was languishing on the bench averaging less than 10 minutes of court time through the season’s 1st 13 games before Bennett gave him his first start and some extended run at Wake Forest on Jan. 13.
UVa lost 66-47 that day. But it hasn’t lost since.
Minor’s energy and rebounding is a big reason why. So is the pressure his presence on the court has helped take off the shoulders of teammate Ryan Dunn, who suddenly has more open space with which to use his length and athleticism.
Surging Virginia = extremely useful Jordan Minor pic.twitter.com/RtNNJgd1eG
— Jim Root (@2ndChancePoints) February 5, 2024
Equally impactful to the surge that began 4 days later against rival Virginia Tech is the re-emergence of Georgetown transfer Harris.
The 6-foot junior is an aggressive defender who comes off the bench to give star Reece Beekman a break from guarding the other team’s top perimeter threat, allowing him to concentrate more on scoring.
He suffered an ankle injury in a win against West Virginia in late December and missed 10 games.
Although he’s scored only 9 points in the 7 games since his return and is shooting less than 30% from the floor for the season, the only numbers that matter where he’s concerned are those in the win-loss column.
The Cavaliers are 12-1 in games he’s played. They’re just 6-4 in games he’s been out.
— Greg Madia (@GregMadia) January 18, 2024
With fellow transfer Andrew Rhode, freshmen Blake Buchanan and Jordan Groves and others starting to get more comfortable with the concepts of Bennett’s complicated defensive scheme and playing more significant roles, the Cavaliers finally seem to have hit on a winning combination.
They’ve even won 3 straight on the road after struggling away from Charlottesville, where their 23-game home winning streak is the longest in the country.
“Our defense has to travel,” Bennett said.
There isn’t any other choice.
UVa’s 2 toughest games are yet to come, with UNC and Duke on the schedule a week apart later this month. And at 65 points per game, the Cavs rank just 14th out of 15 ACC teams in scoring.
That offensive inefficiency has proven to be a handicap the Cavaliers have been unable to overcome once they reach the postseason. They haven’t made it out of the opening round of the NCAA Tournament since winning the national championship in 2019.
But first things first.
Before you can find a way to advance in March, you have to get there.
As the 3rd best team in the ACC, at least at this moment, you have to like UVa’s chances.