Most of the college basketball world Saturday night was locked on Durham, N.C., as No. 5 Duke edged No. 1 Syracuse in a down-to-the-wire thriller on ESPN.
Probably among those interested viewers were the Virginia Cavaliers.
A few hours earlier and about 170 miles to the north, the then-No. 14 Cavaliers extended their winning streak to 11 and won their program-best 14th conference game, trouncing Notre Dame, 70-49, to much less fanfare — they’re now No. 12 at 24-5, 15-1 in the ACC after dismantling Miami, 65-40, Wednesday night.
Just another Saturday for the Cavs.
“I think that’s something we’ve kind of always done. We’re not a super-flashy team,” said senior forward Akil Mitchell, the Cavs’ leading rebounder. He shot 7-for-7 and scored 15 points to tie the game-high. “We play defense. We kind of got off to a rocky start after a lot of attention this year, but being able to fly under the radar is exactly what we want to do.”
Mission accomplished so far for the Cavaliers, who were fourth in the conference in the preseason polls, behind Duke, Syracuse and North Carolina.
Their rocky start was a 59-56 loss to No. 14 VCU on Nov. 12, in which they missed 14 free throws, then back-to-back non-conference losses in early December, against Wisconsin – Virginia scored a season-low 38 points – and an uncharacteristic fall at Green Bay – allowing 75 points, ruining coach Tony Bennett’s return. The Cavs ended December by laying an egg at Tennessee, allowing a season-high 87 in a 35-point defeat. That left UVA 9-4 and apparently took care of any further national attention.
Few noticed the 69-65 heartbreaking loss at No. 23 Duke on Jan. 13, which left the Cavs 3-1 in the ACC. But they got defensive after that game – and haven’t lost. Unexciting as it might seem, the Cavs are 15-1 and alone in first in the ACC. They’ll take the former for the latter.
“It’s definitely not the prettiest style of basketball,” Mitchell said. “We defend. We play a hard-nosed, tough style of basketball. It might not be people’s favorite style to watch but it gets it done.”
The Cavaliers lead the nation in fewest points per game (55.5), are in the top 10 in fewest points per possession, field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage. They lead the ACC in key defensive categories, scoring defense, field goal percentage defense and rebounding.
Playing UVA is a shooter’s nightmare as they’ve now held their last 16 opponents under 50 percent shooting.
It’s what Bennett-coached teams are all about. In his seven seasons as a head coach Bennett, the National Coach of the Year in 2006-07, has seen four of his teams finish in the top five nationally in scoring defense. This season should make five in eight.
Since Bennett arrived in Charlottesville in 2009 from Washington State, which he led to the Sweet 16 in 2008, Virginia has raised its win total every season, and with the win Saturday, became the second school in ACC history to increase its conference win total five straight seasons.
With two games to go and a 1 ½-game lead on second-place Syracuse, the Cavs control their destiny in winning only the second undisputed ACC regular-season title in school history (they’ve shared it four other times, last in 2007). It would be the first outright title since 1980-81, when National Player of the Year Ralph Sampson led the school to its first Final Four. That team was the last Cavs team to start ACC play 13-1.
Unlike 1981, few expected a conference title this season.
“We’ve always kind of been underrated,” said Mitchell, who remembers Bennett showing him a poster of “Rocky” during his visit. “Myself, Joe [Harris], a bunch of our guys, the first recruiting class that coach Bennett put together was a bunch of guys that had something to prove.”
They’ve proved plenty this season. In ACC play they’ve clamped down on opposing offenses, holding 13 opponents at least 11 points below their season scoring average. That has resulted in runs such as the 25-0 tear Saturday, during which they scored on 15 straight possessions.
“When we’ve gotten a couple of stops in a row, the energy picks up. You can really see a team start to lose life when they’re struggling,” he said. “They start jacking up quick shots. It’s kind of like blood in the water. You can smell it.”
That defensive intensity has covered for an offense that ranks 12th in the ACC in scoring, seventh in field goal percentage and 11th in free throw percentage (fourth in three-point shooting). The nation will get a chance to appreciate the Cavs at 4 p.m. ET March 1, when they host Syracuse on ESPN in what could decide the top seed heading into the conference tournament.
“It’s a big game, but Boston College proved that every game is important,” Mitchell said. “We want to remind ourselves of what happened last year when we lost a couple, to remind ourselves of the pain of not making the tournament.”
Mitchell laughed at the prospect of being back on everyone’s radar. “To be on people’s radar, I don’t think that at this point we’ll even notice it,” he said. “We’re just enjoying the game. It’s so much fun that we don’t even realize what we’re doing.”