Virginia men’s basketball: Cavaliers share the spotlight, and thrive

ANDREW SHURTLEFF/AP - Virginia forward Akil Mitchell (25) drives down court next to Vguard Malcolm Brogdon (15) and Florida State guard Devon Bookert (1) during the ACC matchup on Jan. 18. The Cavaliers have won six of their first seven conference games this season.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia sophomore Malcolm Brogdon had just finished leading the Cavaliers in scoring for the third time in four games when he offered a statement that would have made Coach Tony Bennett smile.

All preseason, as pundits anointed this year’s team the best Virginia had fielded since the days of Ralph Sampson, Bennett kept emphasizing these Cavaliers would only succeed because of the sum of their parts, not the exploits of a single star.

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In a moment when he could have enjoyed the spotlight, Brogdon finally grasped what his coach had been talking about.

“We have such unselfish players. Guys with no hidden agenda about scoring, about anything,” he said. “I think as long as you have players like that, that are also very good individually, you’re going to have success.”

It sure seems to be working for Virginia, which enters its first game against Notre Dame since 1991 red hot, off to its best start in ACC play (6-1) since Sampson and company were the talk of the ACC during the 1982-83 season.

If the Cavaliers can manage the cold before their 9 p.m. tip Tuesday — the wind chill in South Bend, Ind., was supposed to dip as low as minus-40 Monday night and city officials have instituted a driving ban due to the winter weather emergency — they would be in position to return to the top 25 for the first time since the preseason heading into a Super Bowl Sunday matchup at No. 18 Pittsburgh.

Florida State and Virginia are the only teams in the ACC without a player in the league’s top 20 in scoring. The Cavaliers, though, are third in the conference in points per game through seven ACC games, an impressive feat for a defensive-minded program that is still second in the nation in scoring defense this year.

“That’s the most difficult kind of team to prepare for,” said Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey, who is off to a 2-5 start in his first year in the ACC after losing leading scorer Jerian Grant (DeMatha) for the season due to an academic issue. “It could be anybody on any given night.”

Bennett said this year’s team is playing his system better than any he’s had during five seasons in Charlottesville. For the first time in school history, Virginia has won its first six ACC games by double digits.

Everyone agrees the turning point came as a result of an 87-52 drubbing at Tennessee on Dec. 30, the sort of soul-searching setback that “forced us all to buy in” to what Bennett had preached all along, senior Akil Mitchell said.

“Teams that are more balanced and have some depth, when they’re playing well, are harder to beat,” Bennett said. “I like that, that you can’t just focus on one guy and say, ‘If we stop him, we’re good.’ At times we were like that last year and I think we have more balance and that has shown when we’ve played our better basketball. I think there’s different weapons and that makes a stronger team.”

Nobody has had to sacrifice shots more than senior Joe Harris, a first-team all-ACC selection a year ago who still leads the Cavaliers in scoring. His average has dropped, but his efficiency has improved, a fact Bennett has mentioned often in recent weeks because “not too many players of his caliber will do that.”

But with Virginia clicking, Harris has no problem giving more of the limelight to his teammates.

“We got to this point because we figured out our identity and what we need to do to be successful,” he said. “We’ve worked very hard to get to this point and we’d be doing a disservice to all of us if we let up now and falter and not finish the league play the right way.”

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