Last night Duke took the rematch against Virginia in Charlottesville, sweeping the Cavaliers. The score 81-71. As I watched the game last night, it never felt like it was that close and it could have been worse. Duke probably stays at #2 in the rankings (or they may move up to #1 over Tennessee with the nice win). Virginia won’t move down too much in the rankings despite the loss. It is the Cavaliers second, both times to the Blue Devils.
But should there be cause of concern in Charlottesville?
We know Virginia has been ranked atop of the college basketball world for the last 4-5 years. However, the Cavaliers have seen more March heartbreak than anything else, failing to get to the Sweet 16 in three of the last five seasons despite having a high ranking. And of course, we know about last year where they became the first #1 seed to fall to a #16 seed in tournament history after many (myself included) penned them to at least get to the Final Four.
This year, Virginia will likely take a #1 or #2 spot in the tournament again. The defense is pretty aggressive and the offense is fairly solid when they want to be. However, a trend is really starting to take shape from their tournament losses to their losses this season against Duke: teams who have as much talent if not more talent than Virginia are the teams who get the Cavaliers at the end.
The ACC this year has about 6 strong teams. Good for most conferences, though it is somewhat “down” for them. Which benefits Virginia obviously. Don’t get me wrong, the Cavaliers have talent like D’Andre Hunter (who I love watching play), Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and Alabama transfer Braxton Key off the bench. Duke of course is probably a cut above the conference and putting out one if its best teams since the Christian Laettner/Bobby Hurley/Grant Hill era. North Carolina is North Carolina, Louisville has surprised, and Virginia Tech is a strong physical team. But teams like NC State, Clemson, Miami, and Notre Dame have all taken steps back from their play last year or previous years.
Virginia has beaten the latter teams with relative ease this season (plus a blowout win vs. rival Virginia Tech). The NC State game went to overtime in a nail-biter, but the Cavs showed that they are a great squad…when they see teams that aren’t as strong. So far, aside from Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, and Duke, they haven’t seen many strong teams to this point.
What concerns me with Virginia aside from their play in March are a few things. Duke somewhat exposed the Cavaliers a bit on it was that they do not like it when teams play as aggressive on both sides of the ball as Virginia can. Again, this is Duke we are talking about with Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett so I get that. But even the previous years in their losses in the tournament, they had the same issue: Michigan State got them twice, Florida got them, and of course UMBC who really punched them in the mouth.
Sometimes I also feel and this is also a trend for the past 5 years is that the Cavaliers sometimes when they see teams that are as talented as they are if not more talented slow down the game, notably on offense. And that’s how I feel like they get in trouble. Last night I think early on they tried and Duke capitalized on the turnovers and the shots. It just felt like both Williamson and Barrett dictated that game from beginning to end. And with the Cavaliers offense, while good, is not a team that has an offense that can shoot them back into a game. It happened last year with UMBC, in prior years against Michigan State, and has happened now with Duke.
Virginia’s schedule down the stretch isn’t much easier even after Duke. UNC is next at Chapel Hill. Also the Cavaliers have road trips to Virginia Tech and Louisville while the latter is a back-to-back road swing with Syracuse. Those teams have talent and can be as aggressive as the Hokies can. The question can be can Virginia withstand these teams and if they throw haymakers at them?
The next 9 games won’t decide Virginia’s fate in March (they’re in obviously and will probably win at least 6 of their games), but it will also tell what kind of team the Cavaliers have heading into the tournament. But until they silence the critics, there will always be wonder-and concern in Charlottesville about the Cavaliers being an actual legit power in college basketball.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat