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Stifling defense proving No. 6 Virginia is legitimate Final Four contender

Last year, Virginia won 30 games for just the second time in team history. As crazy as it sounds, through 11 games of the 2014-15 season, the Cavaliers just might be better. Virginia played about as perfect a 20 minutes of basketball as you’ll see in the first half against Harvard in Charlottesville on Sunday, going up 39-8, and ultimately winning 76-27

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We’ll get to the larger implications in a moment, but first some stats and context. The eight points allowed in the first half was a first-half defensive record for Virginia (It held Rutgers to eight points in the second half in a 45-26 win earlier this season). With 6:17 remaining in the first half, Virginia scored its 28th point, which is more than Harvard scored all game. Harvard went 1-of-20 from the floor in the first frame and didn’t make a basket for the last 16:33. The field goal drought stretched to 19:55 overall. The Crimson starters started 0-23 before Steve Moundou-Missi made a shot with 16:38 left in the second half. 

It seems like overkill to keep listing the various levels of futility for Harvard on Sunday, but it’s not to discourage or embarrass the Crimson. Harvard’s a pretty good team. It was 7-1 coming in with wins over Massachusetts, Northeastern and Vermont. It was ranked 29th in the KenPom ratings coming into the game. Harvard will be fine. The Crimson have a good shot at making the NCAA tournament once again and making life miserable for whomever they draw in their first game.

This is more to highlight just how good Virginia was on Sunday and how dangerous the Cavs really are.  

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Virginia earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament last year. They sit at 11-0 with non-conference wins over George Washington, VCU, Maryland and now Harvard, and after a Dec. 30 game against Davidson, they’ll head into ACC play as one of the most dangerous teams in the country. 

Of course this year’s ACC is no cakewalk. There were nine teams in the KenPom top 70 heading into Sunday’s slate of games, including five in the top 25. With the different styles you have to contend with game in and game out, between Louisville, Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, NC State and others, having a defense like Virginia has is an equalizer. 

It’s something that doesn’t change whether teams face a grind-it-out club, a more physical team, a run-and-gun group, an inside-out game or anything else. The Cavs will make you work and it won’t be easy, at home or on the road. That’s a credit to head coach Tony Bennett, who won 75 games in the three seasons prior to this one. 

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The slow tempo might be what keep people from buying into Virginia entirely, but that’s foolish at this point. The Cavaliers made it to the Sweet Sixteen last year and were a bucket away from the Elite Eight, falling 61-59 to Michigan State. 

Wisconsin and Bo Ryan have proven merely playing at a slow tempo doesn’t mean a team doesn’t have great (and talented!) basketball players or can’t score. It just makes the Dexter-like precision that much more impressive. Each little cut matters. 

Virginia’s statement win came just a day after Kentucky went up 41-7 on UCLA in the first half. You haven’t seen anyone calling the undefeated Cavaliers the greatest college team of all time like you hear about the Wildcats, and you likely won’t. But with that defense and a variety of scoring options, it’s maybe about time everyone starts acknowledging Virginia as a potential Final Four contender.