The Virginia Cavaliers have made a resounding statement and proved that they are the most unknown title contender in NCAA basketball with their stomping of No. 4 Syracuse on Saturday, 75-56. The Cavaliers rode their nationally top-ranked defense to a statement victory to wrap up the school’s first regular season ACC title since 1981. In a conference traditionally dominated by schools like Duke and North Carolina, Virginia has put themselves back on the national radar and is not to be taken lightly heading into March.
Virginia trumped Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 defense and laid claim to the conference title with their 16-1 record, but there is still plenty of work to be done. Prior to the win over Syracuse, Virginia was still 15-1 in the ACC but the only loss was to Duke, the other powerhouse in the conference. Virginia was lacking a true statement win, and the pounding of the Orange catapulted them from red-hot underdog to legitimate contender.
Virginia has gone to the tournament only one time since the year 2007, and has now won just the second outright conference title in the school’s 51 years in the ACC. They do not have the pedigree, but Virginia clearly has the talent to make a huge run in the NCAA tournament with their defense and balanced scoring.
“They’ve got the perimeter game, they can shoot the 3,” said University of Miami head coach Jim Larranaga to The Roanoke Times. “But those interior guys, like Anthony Gill and Akil Mitchell are just absolutely terrific,” he added.
This past December, Virginia was on their way to another lackluster campaign. In that month, the Cavaliers had a five game span during which they suffered a loss to Wisconsin where they scored just 38 points, a loss to the lowly Green Bay Phoenix of the Horizon League, and then got destroyed by 35 points against Tennessee. Once the calendar turned, something lit a fire under the Cavaliers and they have not looked back.
If Virginia has an Achilles heel, it is most definitely on offense. They have won very few games by having to truly outscore teams. Relying on defense is a surefire way to ensure victory because a team has more control over defense than offense. There will be nights where shots simply aren’t falling, but defensive effort should never escape a team on a given night. The old adage of defense winning championships has withstood the test of time.
It would be irresponsible when filling out brackets this year to blindly put all faith in Virginia going the distance when this is just their second win over a ranked opponent on the year. They will now have to prove over the course of the ACC tournament that they can live up to the pressure of being the hunted instead of the hunter. The win over Syracuse has officially put them on the pedestal.
“The last time I heard it that loud was at the Taylor Swift concert,” exclaimed Virginia head coach Tony Bennett to the Washington Post after the win.
Virginia is now the most unknown NCAA title contender in college basketball after making a loud statement over Syracuse with a dominant victory. They have managed to fly under the radar in the ACC underneath Duke and Syracuse’s budding rivalry, but now they are alone on top of the conference and facing a ranking in the top ten with the firepower to surprise everyone when March Madness comes around.
By Justin Hussong