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For Virginia to be true national contender, scoring must be a priority

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Virginia's Salt punishes the rim (0:22)

Devon Hall feeds Jack Salt who throws it down with authority for the Cavaliers. (0:22)

If there's one thing we've come to count on from Tony Bennett's Virginia Cavaliers, it's that you aren't going to see much scoring -- from anyone.

Love it or hate it, Virginia is going to grind its opponents into the court with ferocious defense while putting you to sleep with stodgy offense.

And that's exactly how the 18th-ranked Cavs ended the first night of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Virginia's 49-37 win over Wisconsin at home on Monday night could have easily been confused for a Big 12 or Pac-12 football shootout, but it exuded that classic Virginia basketball that is both painful to watch and probably equally as painful to play.

With just under five minutes left in the game, both teams combined for only 75 points. After Virginia jumped out to a 42-28 lead with 10:32 left, the Cavs scored just seven more points and endured a nearly seven-minute drought before making another basket.

The Cavs smothered the Badgers, whose four losses have all come to ranked opponents, with that swarming defense that has helped send Virginia to four straight NCAA tournaments. Wisconsin shot just 31.3 percent from the field and just 15 percent from 3 (3-for-20). The Badgers also turned the ball over 14 times.

Offensively, Virginia wasn't much better. The Cavs shot just 38.3 percent, including 21.4 percent from 3 (3-for-14), and had 12 turnovers.

What might have been most concerning was the fact that the Cavs didn't even get to the charity stripe, which is free points off the board for a team that averaged 17 free throws per game.

Now, it's still very early into the season for Virginia -- seven games in, to be exact -- and this was the first time the Cavs dipped below 60 points. Wisconsin certainly did its part on defense, and Monday night jitters can happen to anyone.

However, there’s still a level of offensive evolution this team needs to be a true championship threat when it’s win-or-go-home time.

For the past few seasons, this defense-first strategy has worked to a point. Virginia has won the ACC regular-season championship twice in the past four years, but the Cavs just haven’t had enough offense to really compete for a national championship.

Even as a No. 1 seed in 2016, Virginia made it to only the Elite Eight.

In Bennett’s previous eight years with Virginia, the Cavs have failed to rank higher than 11th in the ACC in scoring. Only once in that span have they averaged more than 70 points per game (71 per game in 2015).

Last year, Virginia averaged just 66.1 points per game, which was 15th in the ACC and 313th nationally before getting ousted in the second round of the NCAA tournament in a 65-39 loss to Florida.

If Virginia is going to take the next step toward being a national contender, the offense has to find its way to Charlottesville -- because when the shots don't fall, there's no creativity to get this sluggish offense on the scoreboard.

Entering Tuesday's game, Virginia was averaging an ACC-low 51.8 shots per game and was 13th in the league with just 73.3 points per game (tied for 210th nationally).

Virginia left the game averaging 69.9 ppg.

Going forward, these kinds of offensive performances won't cut it when the big boys come to play. Anyone who stayed awake long enough to watch No. 1 Duke's furious comeback win over then-No. 7 Florida on Sunday in the championship game of the PK80's Motion Bracket saw 171 points and 137 shots.

ACC foe Duke scored 87 of those points and took 66 of those shots. Granted, Florida and Duke don't play the same suffocating defense, but these are two teams and styles the Cavs might have to get through to win it all. They are also two teams that can kill from the outside or slice through even the stoutest defenses with their athleticism, length and speed.

There's imagination and efficiency to those offenses, two things the Cavs are still searching for.

Right now, Duke is averaging 20 more points per game than Virginia. Ranked ACC opponents North Carolina, Notre Dame and Miami are all averaging at least 10 more points per game than the Cavs.

Virginia just can't rely on defense alone against these more offensively capable teams.

Virginia had just two players reach double figures scoring Monday, but it appears the duo of senior guard Devon Hall and junior guard Kyle Guy could be the answer to improving this offense. Guy, who is averaging a team-high 15.8 ppg, led the team with 17 points, while Hall added 16. That's back-to-back double-digit performances for Hall, which is good news for this team.

Offense has never been a strong suit for Bennett's Cavs, but for Virginia's story -- and ending to the season -- to change, the Cavs will need to acclimate themselves to the basket better.

There's still plenty of time to for this team to evolve, but as November fades to a close, it's still just too much of the same old thing for Virginia.