College Sports

Far from perfect, Virginia reminds ACC why it’s No. 1

Virginia’s Kyle Guy scored 29 points against NC State during Thursday’s quarterfinal victory in the ACC Tournament in Charlotte.
Virginia’s Kyle Guy scored 29 points against NC State during Thursday’s quarterfinal victory in the ACC Tournament in Charlotte. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Given everything that comes with the ACC Tournament circus — Zion this, Zion that, N.C. State maybe-sort-of being on the NCAA Tournament bubble, “Luuuuuke” cheers ringing in Spectrum Center, North Carolina’s wins* over Duke — you’d be forgiven for forgetting about the conference’s top overall seed and preeminent threat.

Ho hum, another 20-point Virginia win. Nothing to see here.

The scary part though, if you’re Duke or North Carolina or really any ACC team unlucky enough to be UVa’s path? How dominant the Cavaliers were on Thursday against N.C. State even in an imperfect form. They had six first-half turnovers (they average nine a game) and shot just 41.7 percent from the floor. All-ACC guard Ty Jerome went scoreless.

And yet, after halftime, the machine self-corrected. The switch — and you could tell when it flipped, during an 11-1 second-half run — ratcheted from “good” to “game over.”

Only three turnovers after halftime. Ending the game — a 75-56 quarterfinal victory — shooting over 52 percent, and almost as good from 3? Jerome only scored one layup, sure... but he had 10 assists, four steals, and five rebounds. For Virginia basketball, as it has all season against everyone not named Duke, everything worked itself out.

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“Ty runs the show, no matter what,” guard Kyle Guy said. “If he’s shooting it well or not, he gets us in our offense. He finds people, he still puts pressure on the defense, which is all you can ask from him. Even if he’s not shooting well ... he’s a stat-stuffer and he’s very good at what he does.”

Meanwhile, the loss left the Wolfpack deflated and in danger of missing the big dance. Not that Virginia really gives a hoot about its latest victim.

“The fact that they’re on the bubble is irrelevant to us,” Jerome said. “It’s about doing what we have to do to advance at this time of year ... no matter what the circumstances are.”

That cutthroat mentality isn’t unique among college basketball’s elite programs, and Tony Bennett’s group is no different. That Virginia’s season ended so painfully last season, in such humiliating fashion — the Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed — only adds fuel to the fire.

As if any extra motivation was needed.

“We’ve grown from that experience. We’ve owned it,” Bennett said postgame. “I’ll get asked and we’ll answer the question, but it’s time to press on and be as focused as we can and just get good.”

For Virginia, though, the task at hand is less about getting good than it is about staying there. The team is currently the No. 1 overall team in the country per KenPom, ranking second in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency after throttling N.C. State.

Some of that has to do with Bennett, whose pack-line defense continually presents challenges for the ACC’s most talented offenses. But this Virginia team differs from the Cavaliers of old not because of any new defense, but rather a revamped offense.

Both Jerome and Guy, who had 29 points against the Wolfpack, were named to the All-ACC First-Team for a reason. De’Andre Hunter was the conference Defensive Player of the Year, but he also scores over 15 points a game. Jack Salt, the team’s dependable screen-setter, somehow erupted for a career-high 18 points with baseline drives he has never shown before.

None of this is new for Virginia. It’s no revelation that a 29-2 team ranked No. 2 in the country is this good.

But given all the hype and hysteria around, well, just about everyone else in the ACC? It bears at least reminding that if you can look away from some of the sizzle, there’s a ton of substance worth appreciating.

And if you don’t, Virginia is coming all the same. Let the ruthless, innocuous machine saunter on — and everyone else, get out of the way.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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