LOUISVILLE, Ky. –- The ACC season started Wednesday night, and Virginia gave a reminder -- and a jolt -- to the rest of the league: It’s still not going to be any fun to play these guys.
A home loss to West Virginia at the beginning of December and some young players taking over key spots in Tony Bennett’s rotation had raised at least a few doubts about how good this year’s Cavaliers would be. Not any more.
After winning at Cal last week, No. 12 Virginia registered an even bigger statement with its 61-53 victory at No. 6 Louisville on Wednesday night.
“This is a great step in the right direction for us,” freshman guard Kyle Guy said.
The traits of Bennett’s best teams -- controlling the pace, defending the rim, working for open shots -- were on full display for the first 35 minutes or so at the KFC Yum! Center. The Cavaliers led by as many as 21 points in the second half and shot 49 percent from the floor against a Louisville team that entered with the best defense in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy.
Some late-game slippage didn’t eclipse the fact this was basically a Peak Virginia performance. Nine players scored, but no one had more than Devon Hall’s 10 points. Six players contributed at least three rebounds.
“If how we play isn’t a group thing, I don’t know what is,” Bennett said. “We’re so balanced.”
That balance includes some younger players who are growing up in a hurry. Guy and Mamadi Diakite, both freshmen, played key minutes down the stretch when Louisville was turning up the pressure and threatening to get back in the game. Diakite had eight points in just 15 minutes, and Guy drilled a contested jumper off a baseline screen to end a nearly five-minute scoring drought. Sophomore big man Jarred Reuter also provided a lift off the bench.
“You can see that our young guys are still figuring it out,” Bennett said. “But they’re coming, and that’s big.”
One week ago in this building, Louisville beat hyper-athletic Kentucky 73-70. Virginia’s players caught some of that game before they tipped off against Cal in Berkeley.
“They were going up and down the court really, really fast,” Hall said. “I thought, ‘We’d better get back, or we’re going to have a problem.’”
Compared with that Kentucky game, the Cardinals were playing in molasses on Wednesday. It was nothing new for them in this series.
Virginia beat Louisville twice last year by a combined 38 points and is now 4-1 against Rick Pitino’s teams since the Cardinals joined the ACC. Pitino lamented Tuesday that Louisville must have been on Santa’s naughty list to draw the Cavaliers twice in ACC play for the second straight season. In the four losses, Pitino's teams have averaged just 48 points.
“Virginia seems to be our kryptonite,” Pitino said.
There’s no big secret as to why. Bennett’s teams play defense at a similar level to Pitino’s -- Virginia was second in Pomeroy’s defensive ratings entering Wednesday -- take care of the ball well against pressure and don’t give up much on fast breaks. Louisville dug itself a huge early hole by committing 11 turnovers in its first 30 possessions and rushing shots. The Cardinals had no assists in the first half and finished with only seven.
When they finally turned the game more frantic in the final few minutes, it was far too late. Rallying against Virginia is like trying to scale Mount Kilimanjaro on ice skates.
“Our defense is where our success comes from,” senior guard London Perrantes said. “I think it kind of hurts them because we get back in transition, and that’s where most of their offense comes from.”
The Cavaliers let the pace of the West Virginia game get away from them against full-court pressure, especially down the stretch. But they gleaned some valuable lessons in the process. They had to remember who they were and how they had to play.
“We had to learn to play harder and be tougher,” Perrantes said. “Play with more heart. I felt we came out strong and played with a lot of heart tonight.”
They played a lot, in fact, like the Virginia teams everyone remembers from the past several years. Like one that will be a pain in the rear end for the rest of the ACC.