(AP) – Tony Bennett guided Virginia to its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 38 years with a foundation in defense, smart play and hard work.
A season later, the No. 2 Cavaliers are off their best start since the Ralph Sampson era.
In a league featuring Hall of Fame coaches and marquee programs, Bennett and the Cavs are again atop the standings. They’re one of the nation’s last two unbeatens entering a stretch that could reveal whether they’re as good as their ranking, starting Saturday against No. 4 Duke.
”It’s still the same mindset: Will you be faithful to the things that have gotten you there?” Bennett said. ”It doesn’t change. Nothing changes. All of a sudden, you don’t become someone you’re not. That would be fool’s gold. That would be a big mistake.”
After some lean years before Bennett’s arrival, a roster led largely by unheralded veterans has Virginia alongside top-ranked Kentucky – stocked with potential one-and-done NBA players – as college basketball’s only undefeated teams.
Now the Cavaliers (19-0, 7-0) face the three ACC teams picked to finish ahead of them, each coached by Hall of Famers.
First up is Mike Krzyzewski and the preseason favorite Blue Devils (17-3, 4-3) in a rematch of last year’s ACC tournament final. Duke is coming off Wednesday’s 77-73 loss at No. 8 Notre Dame, then a day later it dismissed guard Rasheed Sulaimon after Krzyzewski said the junior had been ”unable to consistently live up” to team standards.
Virginia visits No. 13 North Carolina and Roy Williams on Monday and hosts No. 10 Louisville and Rick Pitino next weekend.
”We don’t need to worry about the next couple of games that are coming up,” all-ACC junior guard Malcolm Brogdon said. ”We have one opponent to play on Saturday and we need to worry about going in there and playing Virginia basketball from the start. … We have to keep building on the success we’ve had.”
The Cavaliers were ranked No. 9 this preseason despite losing seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell from a 30-win team that reached the NCAA round of 16 for the first time since 1995 as a No. 1 seed.
And as with last year, they don’t win with overwhelming talent.
Rather, a team with no McDonald’s All-Americans plays tough defense and tempo-controlling offense. They force opponents to defend deep into the shot clock and play together to overcome teams with more individual talent, led by a 45-year-old coach described by Krzyzewski as someone who ”really understands the total game.”
Everything starts with defense, where the Cavaliers allow a national-low 49.1 points per game – with three opponents failing to crack 30. While their offensive pace holds down that average, they also rank second nationally in field-goal percentage defense (34 percent), second in points allowed per possession and third in both rebounding and scoring margin.
At the other end, Virginia ranks 13th nationally in points scored per possession (1.208) while shooting 47 percent with a balanced attack posting the best averages of Bennett’s 6-year tenure. And junior Justin Anderson has developed from ACC sixth man of the year to the team’s top scorer (13.9 points) while shooting a league-best 52 percent on 3-pointers.
That both-ends-of-the-court efficiency has Virginia enjoying its best start since the 7-foot-4 Sampson-led Cavs went 23-0 and reached the Final Four in 1981.
Duke won its first 14 but has split its last six, allowing its opponent to shoot better than 50 percent in all three losses. North Carolina State, Miami and Notre Dame especially took advantage of the Blue Devils behind the arc, knocking down 51.9 percent of their 3-point attempts.
Krzyzewski felt there was one key difference in Duke’s performance in South Bend.
"We played well (Wednesday)," Krzyzewski said. "We played well enough to win the game and should have won the game. It hurts because at Miami and NC State we didn’t play well."
Sulaimon’s dismissal leaves Duke with just eight scholarship players and one less wing defender, putting more pressure on Justise Winslow. The freshman had 13 points against the Irish but has averaged just 5.8 on 29.7 percent shooting in the Blue Devils’ six-game rough patch. He’ll likely be charged with slowing down Anderson in this matchup.
Virginia’s starting front line, which doesn’t have anyone taller than 6-foot-8, doesn’t figure to have an easy time dealing with the 6-11 Jahlil Okafor. He’s continued to do his part in Duke’s three losses, averaging 20 points and 14.7 rebounds.
The Cavaliers won the last meeting in Charlottesville two years ago, and the teams split two games last season. Brogdon had a career-high 23 points in Virginia’s ACC tournament championship game victory.