ATLANTA — Consider this the basketball equivalent of the timeless chicken-or-egg debate.
Does the University of Virginia own a 10-1 record in ACC play because of lessons learned from the "preseason" (four losses to VCU, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Wisconsin-Green Bay) … or are the Cavaliers simply better off with a shorter player rotation, utilized throughout January and February?
It’s a nebulous question, and one without a definitive answer. Since being on the business end of a blowout loss to Tennessee on Dec. 30, UVa has rallied for 10 conference wins — with an average victory margin of 16 points — to just one loss (Duke on the road).
That run of excellence includes Virginia’s 64-45 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday, before a large contingent of Yellow Jacket basketball alums (Bobby Cremins, Kenny Anderson, Dennis Scott, etc.) at McCamish Pavilion.
It was also the Cavaliers’ third road triumph in 11 days.
As such, Virginia’s near-perfect conference mark represents the school’s best start since the halcyon days of Ralph Sampson, Othell Wilson, Jeff Jones and head coach Terry Holland (1981-82 season), with those Cavaliers eventually claiming a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
"I told our guys (prior to tipoff), ‘Look, you’ve got eight games left (in the regular season). It’s like a step of stairs — each one is equally important,’" said Virginia head coach Tony Bennett in the post-game media scrum. "You need two feet on each step and (then) play to the best of your abilities."
No. 20 Virginia saved its best moves for last on this day, transforming a two-point deficit into a 19-point runaway over the final nine-plus minutes. It was a flurry borne out of hellacious defense, proficiency on the free throw line (14 of 16 in second half) and one timely three-pointer from star guard Joe Harris (6:15 left), essentially putting the gritty victory on ice.
"I thought we gave (Harris) some good looks early on," explained Bennett, now in his fifth season with Virginia. "At some point, I said, ‘Joe, I think you’ve got to take those.’"
Harris’s corner three-pointer, which boosted UVa’s lead to seven, would stand as his only field goal of the second half. It was also the signature moment of the Cavaliers’ game-ending 22-1 run — a stretch that included two Malcolm Brogdon free throws, one Brogdon dunk, Harris’s three-pointer, one Akili Mitchell dunk, one Anthony Gill dunk, seven consecutive free throws and one Darion Atkins layup.
For Georgia Tech, the deflating finish included zero field goals, three turnovers, four missed free throws and eight missed shots.
"It was really something to see that happen," marveled Bennett.
Brogdon, a Georgia native, led the Cavaliers in both points (14) and rebounding (11). He also nailed all seven of his free throws.
Leading up to Saturday’s game, it had become commonplace to characterize Georgia Tech as "short-handed," a reference to the club’s recent rash of injuries. But that was only a partial concern against Virginia, with guard Trae Golden and forward Robert Carter Jr. returning to action — on a limited basis.
With Golden and Carter on board, Georgia Tech had the so-called-luxury of awarding 16-plus minutes to seven players; but it still didn’t prevent the club from getting crushed in rebounding (46-25) — on both ends of the court.
"We played a very good team (Saturday) that down the stretch made every play. You’ve got to give them credit," said Gregory, while noting two turnovers during the 22-1 run that were "obvious back-breakers."
"I’m disappointed in the way that things ended. We just weren’t able to finish."
For the week, GT mustered only 86 points in two games (both losses). Against Clemson on Tuesday, Georgia Tech shot 35 percent and squandered a five-point lead in the waning minutes. Against Virginia, the Yellow Jackets might have simply running out of gas, perhaps rationalizing the rebounding disparity and free-throw malaise.
"When we get a chance to score, we need to do it," said Tech center Daniel Miller (nine points, seven rebounds), "because you’re not going to have that opportunity again. We have to knock (the free throws) down."
Guard Marcus Georges-Hunt (seven points, two rebounds, two turnovers) put a more upbeat spin on his team’s late slump.
"You try not to make mistakes at all … but nobody’s perfect."
At the time of this writing, No. 1 Syracuse (22-0, 9-0 in ACC) was still riding the perfect wave, thus relegating Virginia (19-5) to second place in conference play.
But the Cavaliers are sitting pretty amongst their regional brethren, armed with five road wins, 10 ACC victories and secure in the knowledge that Syracuse visits Charlottesville on March 1 — the only in-season clash between the clubs.
In fact, of its final seven conference games, Virginia has two remaining outings with cellar-dwellers Miami (2-7) and Boston College (1-10) … and zero meetings against Duke, North Carolina or Pittsburgh.
Which brings us back to the importance of UVa exiting Atlanta with a victory.
"We were in a fight," said Bennett, alluding to the general perils of playing a talented team with essentially nothing to lose. "Different kinds of games require different kinds of action."