Remember last season when the Virginia Cavaliers won their first ACC title in 38 years, got a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament and advanced all the way to the Sweet 16 before losing to Michigan State by two points?
Well, that wasn’t a fluke. No. 3 Virginia (13-0) is one of just three unbeaten teams remaining in college basketball this season. Perhaps you’ve heard of the other two: No. 1 Kentucky (13-0) and No. 2 Duke (13-0).
So, what’s been the secret for the Cavaliers these last few seasons?
“You know what? It’s been exciting,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said on Tiki and Tierney. “We’re fortunate to be undefeated certainly with the hard-fought close game against Miami and some other (close) games (we’ve played), but our guys have embraced what they’ve had to do, and certainly I think they have to understand teams play up. You start conference play, and teams play up. Being in the spot we’re in with the rankings, you’re getting everybody’s best shot. All that stuff comes with it. (We’re) certainly excited to be in this spot and realize we got a lot of work to do, but we’re going to keep plugging.”
Virginia is getting it done this year – just as it did last year – with defense. The Cavaliers rank second in the country in scoring defense (50.8 points per game) and are eighth in rebounding. They also have several key players back from last year, including Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Justin Anderson and London Perrantes.
“Experience helps, but I don’t think you get too caught up in (the success we’re having right now),” Bennett said. “The rankings stuff is really overrated. I think you’ll step into conference play and you’ll find out. You’re going to have to prove how good you are because you’re going against bigger boys and a little more athleticism – all those things that come with it. Each game is significant for us.”
That includes the last one, which Virginia won, 89-80, in double overtime at Miami. The Cavaliers coughed up an 18-point halftime lead but rallied in the second overtime to remain unbeaten.
Bennett’s message after the game was simple: It was a great team win, we showed grit, and we need to improve in a lot of areas. But had we lost, we would have been okay.
“We’re going to keep plugging,” Bennett said. “It’s just about us getting to playing at the highest quality we can. And as they say, you treat winning and losing kind of as an imposter and get to your level of excellence, whatever that is. Again, with our team, if that takes us further than last year and we’re a better team, great. If it means we’re not as good and don’t go as far, well, then I’ll live with it. I just want this team to max out. I think that’s the challenge always in front of us.”
The Cavaliers have a couple of stiff challenges upcoming. They host NC State (11-4) on Jan. 7 before facing ACC leader Notre Dame (15-1) on the road Jan. 10. The 13th-ranked Irish have won 11 straight games, including wins over Michigan State and North Carolina.