Generally, I have a theory for evaluating college basketball teams and their ability to be contenders on the national level. You aren’t worthy of attention until you have been on the national radar for at least a couple of years. There are exceptions to this rule, but a hefty dose of skepticism is assessed to any team that attempts to take a major leap into elite status without first paying its dues with a couple of years in the top 25.
Thus I came into the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Va., ready to write one of two columns off the UVA/Syracuse game*: If the Cavs won a close game, I would say: "What a season by Virginia. They are gritty, they are spunky and with the crowd’s help they are winning an unlikely ACC title." If the Cavs lost the narrative would go: "Virginia is a good team, Tony Bennett is a good coach, but Syracuse is elite and that was the difference in the game." It would fit perfectly with a clean college basketball narrative.
Not so fast. Up close on Saturday, Virginia was a real, legitimate contender. Yes, the Cavs clinched the ACC regular-season title today in part due to an unbalanced ACC schedule and not having to play any of the power teams twice. However, that doesn’t explain the complete and total 75-56 dismantling of Syracuse on Saturday afternoon. That wasn’t a Cavaliers team happy and fortunate to have just enough talent and luck to ride a wave to a magical season. That was a squad that can beat anyone in America and is now allowed to dream big.
UVA plays some of the most entertaining basketball in the country. It is balanced, with eight players averaging over 10 minutes a game and seven players averaging at least eight points. In Saturday’s game, four players scored in double digits, and one of them was not senior star Joe Harris, who struggled from the field (shooting 2 for 10) but made a number of key plays down the stretch to seal the win.
Over the years, the ‘Hoos (as the fans seem to call them when they play well; they are the "Cavs" when struggling) have been known primarily for their defense. Bennett’s teams are great at pressuring the shooters, taking players out of their comfort zones (as seen by their harassment of C.J. Fair and Tyler Ennis on Saturday) and forcing teams to beat them with alternative options. This season, they rank third in the country in Kenpom.com defensive efficiency, and there is no team playing better at its end of the court right now anywhere in college basketball.
However, the secret to Virginia’s meteoric rise this season has been in its play at the offensive half. Bennett’s 2013-14 squad is also deadly on the offensive end. The balanced group has great ball movement, hits the open shot and can finish in transition. It is an efficient offensive attack, something even the heartiest Bennett admirer has not been able to say about his teams often. In fact, Virginia is, dare I say, pleasant to the eye, allowing those of us who admire the coach’s philosophy and teams to finally have a year where we dont have to apologize for a sometimes less-than-beautiful brand of basketball. This Virginia team is fun, a fact showcased by the rocking JPJ Arena vs. the Orange.
I judge the NCAA tournament by a very succinct and consistent standard. People talk about the Madness of March as if it is somehow ingrained into the tournament’s fiber, but when it comes to picking a champion, that isn’t really the case. While we have seen a plethora of Cinderellas make their way to the Final Four, when push comes to shove in the final, power still rules. Underdogs can make their way to the championship game, but with rare exception, an elite team always cuts down the nets.
Every year before the tournament begins, I pick five teams that can win it and guarantee the champion comes from that group. It has worked every year since 1994 (when I started) except one, when the 1997 Arizona team took home the title. This season however, the process is a little more difficult. With no real dominant team in America, there aren’t a lot of obvious choices for my Elite 5 and I have struggled to formulate that short list.
But after Saturday afternoon in Charlottesville, I am asking myself, "Why not Virginia?"
The Cavaliers don’t have the traditional makeup of a national champion (top 10 in offensive efficiency and a couple of future pros), and unlike virtually every team that wins college basketball’s ultimate prize, they haven’t been there before. However, the ‘Hoos had just completely dismantled one of the other elite teams in the nation in a way rarely seen this season. While the final score was a bit misleading, the result was not: Virginia was the better team by far, and it now sits 16-1 in the ACC, with the only loss at Duke in a game it gave away. If the name on the front of the jersey said "North Carolina," would I not proclaim Virginia a national title contender? Then how can I not do the same thing now?
The goal was to come to Virginia hoping to experience one of the nation’s best and most underappreciated venues again and to write the equivalent of a love tap on the future ACC champion. I leave thinking that Virginia is not only dangerous, but also a legitimate threat to win the whole thing. The UVA narrative is now officially discarded.
* I consider it my duty to tell you, faithful FOX Sports College Basketball Road Trip reader, a secret: Most of the national media members that you read go into a game already knowing what they want to write and then hope the facts of the game fit that narrative.