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In heated ACC battle, Virginia is one to notice

Virginia's Joe Harris has averaged 16.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images) Virginia's Joe Harris has averaged 16.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

In the midst of his May announcement to return as USA’s men’s basketball coach, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski made a bold statement about the future of the ACC. “We’re going to be a 10-bid conference,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re going to be the best conference in the history of the game.”

Whether his projection will prove true, no one can say for sure, particularly when the league’s new additions (Notre Dame, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and, in 2014, Louisville) have yet to play their first ACC games.

Here’s what we do know: In 2013-14, the battle for the ACC crown will be fierce, pitting a host of NCAA tournament-caliber teams and prospective All-American players against each other. There’s one team that needs to become a bigger part of the discussion: Virginia.

The Cavaliers, thanks in part to the wave of high-profile additions joining the ACC this season, are going mostly unmentioned in early conference projections. A closer look reveals a team with the depth and individual starpower to not only make the NCAA tournament, but challenge Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and whoever else emerges for a league title.

“With the experience we have coming back next year, and the freshmen coming in, I think we have a good chance to finish near the top of the league,” says senior guard Joe Harris, who has averaged 16.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

Virginia might have a larger place in the early preseason title picture were it not for last season’s disappointing tournament miss. The Cavaliers boasted a number of good wins, including at Wisconsin, Duke and North Carolina, as well as a group of RPI-cratering early-season defeats against George Mason, Delaware and Old Dominion. The combination of quality wins and poor losses rendered a team with a respectable 11-7 ACC record, a talented lineup that passed the always-debated selection committee “eye test,” but a disqualifying RPI of 68. The grief truly hit home on Selection Sunday, but the Cavaliers didn’t need the committee’s official word to understand how damaging those early nonconference losses were to their tournament hopes.

“Every year the goal is to make it to the NCAA tournament and have a chance to play in March and try and make something happen there,” Harris says. “Last year unfortunately we put ourselves in a tough spot. Losing some of those early-season games really negatively-impacted our RPI.”

Needless to say, Virginia can’t afford to suffer the same types of early nonconference losses -- not to mention the five ACC defeats against teams who finished below it in the league standings -- but if it can emerge from November and December relatively unscathed, Virginia should enter league play with the momentum and, more importantly, the players to compete for the ACC championship.

For starters, Harris -- a versatile 6-foot-6 lead guard -- is one of the league’s more imposing backcourt presences. His statistics are impressive in their own right, but Harris’ efficiency numbers stack up just as favorably; his 111.1 offensive rating on 28.1 percent usage, 56.2 effective field goal percentage and 59.5 percent true shooting percentage ranked first among teammates who used at least 16 percent of available possessions, according to Kenpom.com. Senior Akil Mitchell, an active rebounder and skilled low-post scorer, will join Harris to form one of the most effective inside-out duos in the ACC.

Those two players alone give the Cavaliers the building blocks of a conference contender, but the true strength of Virginia this season lies not with the game-changing potential Harris and Mitchell offer, but the Cavaliers’ overall depth and balance at numerous positions.

Sophomore forward Mike Tobey -- a member of USA’s gold medal-winning U-19 team this summer -- will help lead a solid frontcourt featuring Mitchell, South Carolina transfer (and former top-100 recruit) Anthony Gill and athletic sophomore Darion Atkins.

And while the backcourt loses point guard Jontel Evans, the Cavaliers have a number of viable replacements. Incoming freshmen London Perrantes and Devon Hall will vie for playing time in their first seasons on campus, while redshirt sophomore Malcolm Brogdon (who sat out last season with a foot injury) and sophomore Teven Jones offer comparatively more experienced options.

“Having all those guys back, I just think overall, we’re going to have a lot more depth than in year’s past,” Harris said. “We have a number of guys at each position, which is going to be really nice. We’re just looking forward to the season and looking ready to get going.”

With previously mediocre teams like Georgia Tech, Florida State and Boston College set to improve, easy wins will be hard to come by in ACC play. Virginia will need to prove itself before even thinking about chasing a league title. “Every night is going to be a challenge,” Harris says. “We know that.”

But if the Cavaliers can navigate the lower half of the league without taking too many bad losses, a task they couldn’t manage last season, they should find themselves competing at the top of the ACC.

Just don’t tell anyone: Harris prefers his team stay under the radar.

“We’re perfectly fine with that,” he said. “We don’t need any high expectations.”

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