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Virginia emerging as ACC contender heading into road test at Duke

Joe Harris, Virginia Senior Joe Harris (left) has been a team leader as well as the leading scorer for the Cavaliers. (Andrew Shurtleff/AP)

With his team holding a 23-point lead at the half on Saturday in Raleigh, Tony Bennett initially attacked his halftime speech with a familiar approach. Virginia’s coach at least feinted toward universal reliables like narrowing focus to the first four minutes after the break or treating a runaway against N.C. State like it was a scoreless contest. Then he returned to a theme his team recognized as very specific to its own circumstances: Is this a flash in the pan? Or is this the real deal? Let’s see what we’re about.

Bennett was surely encouraged by the answer he got in the second half, when Virginia never let the Wolfpack get closer than 22 points and cruised to a 76-45 blowout that made it three straight wins for his Cavaliers, who moved to 12-4 and 3-0 in the ACC.

“Every team evolves,” Bennett said at his postgame news conference. “You find out strengths. You find out what you have to do. This is the time of year where teams either improve or you kind of stay the same and get left behind. For the last three games, we’ve improved.”

Virginia gets another chance to show just how much better it has gotten when it faces Duke in Durham on Monday night. There’s an argument to be made that the game against the Blue Devils is a nothing-to-lose scenario. The Cavaliers get three straight home games 0against Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. They only play Pittsburgh and Syracuse once, and the matchup with the Orange will come in Charlottesville. Three of their repeat opponents are Maryland, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech – combined ACC record of 4-6 thus far with fractional amounts of fear struck in the hearts of peers – and they already beat the Seminoles, another repeat opponent, on the road.

As of the start of the week, Virginia was No. 2 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 87.3 points per 100 possessions, per kenpom.com. That, plus anything resembling an effective offense, should position the Cavs to threaten anyone and therefore become ACC contenders in a season when everyone just about flushed them from consciousness before the new year.

“They certainly have the elements to compete for a league title,” said Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik, whose team lost to Virginia by 23 on Jan. 8. “They combine all the elements of what you need to have in a championship team. They defend, individually and collectively. They finish the defensive possession with strong, powerful rebounding with all five guys blocking off. So many times they can almost rebound blow the rim because they block off so well. And then offensively, they’re very efficient. They know who’s screening, they know who’s shooting. They work to get the shots they practice and they do a good job of making this shots they want. They’re efficient at both ends and they don’t give teams easy points off bad turnovers. In other words, they don’t beat themselves.”

It’s easy to envision the Cavaliers succeeding when they shoot 50 percent or better on two-point attempts, as they have in the last two victories over Wake Forest and N.C. State. That sort of efficiency, coupled with the defensive asphyxiation, will spike the frustration of any ACC opponent. But most telling was the leap from the 87-52 loss to Tennessee on Dec. 30 to a win at Florida State to begin league play five days later. Virginia shot 32.7 percent against the Volunteers and lost. The Cavaliers then stumbled to 32.8 percent shooting overall against the Seminoles – including 30.9 percent on two-point attempts – and nevertheless scrambled to a win, not permitting their offensive struggles to affect their generally dependable play on the other end.

Bennett credited his team's healed and recalibrated mindset to the tone established by veterans Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell. “Being humbled like that against Tennessee was a wakeup call,” the Cavaliers coach said. “Not that they didn’t try hard, not they didn’t prepare well or practice hard for that. But I’ve seen a little different (approach). It’s their team, it’s their time to lead, and I think that’s message that they got.”

A victory against Duke relays that message to the ACC and beyond, but even a loss shouldn’t obscure it. Not long after careening to demolition, Virginia’s path to contention is clear.

“We’re trying to come out with an edge and not be comfortable,” Bennett said last weekend. The rest of the league should be uneasy about that.

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