Friedlander: UVA's joyride to the ACC's top seed has taken a sudden detour
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The prevailing narrative after North Carolina’s 71-63 victory against Virginia on Saturday is that the Tar Heels are back.
And yes, it was a huge Quad 1 victory.
But while it was a result Hubert Davis’ team desperately needed to enhance a postseason resume that has it teetering on the edge of the NCAA bubble, it still doesn’t answer all the questions that continue to linger about a team fighting to avoid becoming the 1st preseason No. 1 to miss out on the Tournament.
It did, however, raise at least 1 new question.
And not about the Tar Heels.
This one has to do with the suddenly struggling Cavaliers.
Just 2 weeks ago, they appeared to be cruising toward the regular season ACC title with a 1-game lead in the standings and a soft remaining schedule that featured 4 of 6 games against league bottom feeders Louisville, Notre Dame and Boston College.
But the joyride to the No. 1 seed in the upcoming conference tournament has taken a sudden detour, bringing everyone around the league to ask “What’s wrong with UVA?”
While it’s still unclear whether the Cavaliers have simply taken their foot off the accelerator or suffered some kind of mechanical breakdown that will require some 11th-hour repairs. something is clearly amiss.
At the worst possible time of the season.
Even more troubling is the fact that the problems haven’t been limited to just the 2 straight losses that have dropped them from 1st to 3rd in the ACC, a full game behind Pittsburgh and a half-game behind Miami.
They began to show up in the 2nd half of the aforementioned win against the Blue Devils, a game that would very well have ended in a loss had it not been for an officials’ decision the ACC later admitted was a mistake.
That was followed by 2 even more troubling performances.
They got away with a 3-point victory against Louisville before surviving an even tighter 2-point squeaker against Notre Dame, 2 teams that have combined for 4 wins in 32 league games.
But they weren’t as lucky on Tuesday at BC.
UVA shot just 32% from the floor, made only 4 of 21 3-pointers and mustered only 48 points in a loss to the Eagles. It was nearly as bad in Chapel Hill on Saturday with a 39.7% performance that included a dismal 2nd half stretch in which it missed 12 straight field goal attempts and 15 of 16.
Many of them around the rim.
“Everybody will look and say we’re struggling to score, true. You’re missing some layups and finishes. But you just keep knocking,” Bennett said. “I keep hoping 1 of these days we’ll break out of that little shooting slump and it will happen.”
Because the Cavaliers’ pack line defense is traditionally among the best in the country, let alone the ACC, the difference between good UVA teams and great UVA teams usually comes down to the frequency with which it puts the ball in the basket.
This year’s group had been trending in the right direction for most of the season.
It’s a source of frustration for Bennett and his players. But they’re not ready to hit the panic button just yet.
“We know what we can do as a team,” said senior guard Armaan Franklin, who along with Jayden Gardner was 1 of only 2 double-figure scorers in the loss to UNC. “When it doesn’t happen, of course we’re frustrated. But at the same time we know just like a flip of the switch we can be right back where we a couple weeks ago (when we were) were talking about things being all nice and dandy.”
To listen to Bennett, that switch may have already been flipped.
It happened after a 1st half in which his team gave up uncharacteristic 42 points, including 9 3-point baskets, and fell behind by as many as 17.
Although the Cavaliers’ improved effort over the final 20 minutes wasn’t enough to salvage a victory, they were able to outscore the Tar Heels 37-29 and head back to Charlottesville with at least something to feel positive about.
“I thought we fought like crazy in the 2nd half and touched on a level of tenacity on the defensive end,” the UVA coach said. “If we could have played 2 halves quality like that, maybe it’s different. But we didn’t.”
If there’s a silver lining to the Cavaliers’ recent struggles, it’s that they still have 2 more chances to get their act together, both at home, before the ACC convenes in Greensboro for its annual postseason cocktail party.
And that their loss to UNC helped boost the resume for one of their league’s bubble teams. But if it’s all the same, they’d just as soon not be as benevolent on Tuesday against equally needy Clemson squad.
They’ve raised enough questions of their own over the past couple of weeks without helping anyone else answer theirs.