Early in his tenure as the head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers, head coach Tony Bennett‘s team showed flashes of being very good. But invariably, tough losses, or the loss of leads late, would hurt the Cavaliers and keep Bennett’s team from getting where it wanted to be. But on Saturday afternoon, the Syracuse Orange found out what those who have been following Virginia this year already knew — these aren’t the same old Virginia Cavaliers.
Virginia demolished Syracuse 75-56 to clinch the outright ACC regular-season title for the first time since 1981 and only for the second time in school history. Sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon led the Cavaliers (25-5, 16-1 ACC) with 19 points, but four Virginia players scored in double figures in a typical type of team effort at both ends of the floor that has been central to UVA’s success all season long. The win is Virginia’s 13th straight heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale at Maryland. Syracuse (26-3, 13-3) lost for the third time in four games after starting the season 25-0.
There were no speed bumps or hiccups for Virginia in the second half. Instead, the Cavaliers showed how dominant they have been in the conference for most of the season. Virginia outscored Syracuse by 20 points in the second half, mainly from a 35-16 run to end the game after the score was tied at 40 midway through the second half. Akil Mitchell (12), Mike Tobey (11) and Justin Anderson (11) all finished in double figures, as Virginia won going away despite a poor shooting day from senior All-ACC standout Joe Harris (seven points, 2-for-10 field goals).
That fact, that Virginia could be so dangerous with Harris only really contributing late with a three-pointer, jumper and a free throw, really illustrates just how good this Cavaliers team is. For all the loud whispering by alleged national basketball experts about Virginia’s schedule and how they’ve gotten off easy not having to play Duke, North Carolina or Syracuse twice this season, the fact is Virginia also doesn’t have any of the horrible losses those teams have. Syracuse lost at home to Boston College. Duke lost at Clemson and Notre Dame. North Carolina lost at home to Miami and at Wake Forest. Virginia is 6-0 against those teams that have beaten the rest of the conference’s top four — games UVA won by an immense average of 16.5 points per game.
Virginia has only won the ACC tournament once, that in 1976. Even in the great early 1980s seasons with legendary Ralph Sampson in the middle, the Cavaliers always came up short in the conference tournament. That now is the next goal for this team. Virginia has ended a 33-year drought without the outright regular-season title (Virginia has shared that crown multiple times through the years). Now, the Cavaliers have to try and reverse their history of failure in the ACC tournament as well. Prior to Saturday, and despite Virginia’s ACC record, few would have really picked Virginia to be the tournament favorite, and some probably still won’t.
But after burying Syracuse to emphatically lay claim to the conference regular-season crown, a day in which the Cavaliers didn’t crack late, didn’t make the key mistake and didn’t blow an opportunity on a national stage, Virginia has to be taken seriously as the threat to win the ACC tournament and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.