The Virginia men’s basketball team knew all along it would have an unusual eight-day gap between games to end the regular season.
But coming on the heels of a 75-56 romp over Syracuse last Saturday, a victory that propelled the No. 5 Cavaliers to their first outright ACC regular season title since 1981, this break in the schedule before Sunday’s regular season finale at Maryland has also allowed for reflection: On how far the program has come in five seasons under Coach Tony Bennett, how far it could go this season and, perhaps most significantly, how it arrived here after appearing stuck in neutral as the calendar turned to 2014.
Virginia recovered from a 35-point loss at Tennessee on Dec. 30 and never looked back, winning 12 of its 17 ACC games by double digits. But associate head coach Ritchie McKay said the transition from a poor nonconference performance to the start of a historic ACC run was more nuanced than the Cavaliers initially let on.
He thought back to the 62-50 win at Florida State that began league play on Jan. 4, when the Cavaliers lost senior Joe Harris to a concussion three minutes into the contest. Bennett said before the season that Virginia’s success would not be star-driven this year, but at that juncture, there was a growing sense the sheer amount of talent available might sink Virginia’s hopes of returning to the NCAA tournament.
“One of our problems was we worried about the numbers as opposed to getting better,” McKay said. “We were worried about how many minutes we were playing or not playing, and how many shots we’re getting or not getting. Who can take what shot? Why isn’t he coming out for defensive blunders? We were worried about the wrong things, and instead . . . playing for our status as opposed to playing for our process.
“But when Joe couldn’t play, no longer were they waiting on him to do something,” he added. “Joe had so much preseason hype that we stood around and watched him and ended up making losing plays at the end of games . . . because we didn’t play as selflessly as we’re playing now. That got us over the hump. We weren’t numbers-driven. We were process-driven.”
After 13 wins in a row, Virginia’s depth has become the talk of college basketball, and the Cavaliers could earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with a strong finish to the season.
Sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon is averaging a team-high 12.6 points per game, an average that doesn’t even crack the list of the ACC’s top 20 scorers. But the Cavaliers have seven others scoring between 4.8 and 11.3 points per contest, and Bennett is comfortable turning to as many as 11 players in some games.
It’s why they were able to pull away from the Orange despite a 2-for-10 shooting performance by Harris. A year ago, Harris wore down during the final weeks of the season, and Virginia’s NCAA tournament hopes spiraled along with him.
“I don’t know if you can say if it’s just this guy, this is your MVP or that guy,” Bennett said this week. “I think that’s what makes this team strong, is it’s different guys and they all bring different things.”
The diversity of production has prompted an interesting debate among reporters who must turn in all-ACC ballots by Sunday night: What player, if any, on Virginia deserves first-team consideration? Only once before (North Carolina in 2011) has the league’s outright regular season champion not had at least one member voted to the all-ACC first team.
Brogdon is the leading candidate with his play in conference games. He’s the lone player in the league to score in double figures in every ACC contest this season and also chips in 5.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists and a team-high 1.3 steals per game. He leads the ACC in free throw shooting.
But the numbers are still not indicative of his effectiveness because of Virginia’s preference of playing at a slower pace.
Boston College Coach Steve Donahue said Harris’s willingness to accept a smaller role — his scoring has dropped from 16.3 points per game a season ago to 11.3 this year — is the Cavaliers’ best weapon.
“We’re so focused on the goals that we have and trying to make a run in the NCAA tournament that all the individual stuff is taking a backseat to that,” Harris said.