Come Selection Sunday, there may not be a more confusing team in college basketball than Virginia.
The Cavaliers are 4-0 against teams ranked in the top 100 of the Ratings Percentage Index. After three straight convincing wins, they are tied for third in the ACC standings with Duke and ranked No. 32 in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy’s tempo-adjusted college basketball rankings.
Usually those would be signs that Coach Tony Bennett is poised to earn another NCAA tournament berth. But until recently, Virginia was actually the lowest-rated ACC team in the RPI, with its 0-3 record against Colonial Athletic Association competition outweighing the benefits of its 4-2 record in conference play so far. Following Sunday’s win over Boston College, Virginia was No. 113 in the latest RPI projections by Jerry Palm of CBSports.com.
Though Bennett isn’t losing sleep over those rankings just yet — it’s still January, after all — he seems to understand his inexperienced team’s position. The Cavaliers may have hit their stride of late, but they need to take advantage of the few chances left to score quality wins, starting with Tuesday night’s game against No. 19 North Carolina State.
When asked about the early-season upsets during the ACC’s teleconference Monday, Bennett said: “We’re a different team. We had different guys. We had guys out and weren’t playing particularly well, and that’s the risk.”
He noted that losing to Delaware in November as part of the preliminary rounds of the NIT Season Tip-off hurt the strength of Virginia’s nonconference schedule, which is ranked No. 335 in the nation this year. Instead of facing top 50 teams such as Kansas State, Pittsburgh or Michigan in New York, the Cavaliers had to play consolation-round games in Charlottesville against North Texas and Lamar, both of which are ranked below 250 in the current RPI.
“This is about how you finish and when you’re in a league as good as the ACC, in my opinion, that determines how well you do,” Bennett said.
Virginia’s latest chance to prove itself comes Tuesday, when North Carolina State visits John Paul Jones Arena. The Wolfpack has been inconsistent, with wins over Duke and North Carolina and losses to Maryland and Wake Forest in recent weeks. But the team has proven every bit as talented as many anticipated when it was picked to win the ACC before the season. North Carolina State represents one of four remaining opportunities for Virginia to score a victory over a foe currently rated in the top 50 of the RPI.
The Wolfpack will pose a serious challenge to the nation’s second-best defense. Led by point guard Lorenzo Brown and forward C.J. Leslie, North Carolina State is the ACC’s highest-scoring team this season. Six players average at least 9.8 points per game.
As usual, Bennett will want to keep the tempo slow, even though his offense is improving. The Cavaliers have had their three best shooting performances of the year against high-major competition the last three games.
Virginia shot 77.3 percent in the second half of Saturday’s win over Boston College, a season high for a half this year and the program’s most accurate performance for a half since 1984. With leading scorer Joe Harris limited to seven points against the Eagles, freshman Justin Anderson once again stepped into a larger role.
The former All-Met from Montrose Christian scored a career high 16 points, two days after recording a career-best six assists at Virginia Tech.
“Anderson “has that dynamic of athleticism, that explosiveness, that makes some plays for him. It was good to see that on display,” Bennett said.
7 p.m. on ESPN2