Virginia Has Locked Up the ACC After Only One Month

Can anyone topple the Cavaliers as the top team in the ACC?
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Congratulations to Virginia on its ACC regular season championship, its third league crown under coach Tony Bennett, all in the last five years. What, you’re saying there’s still over a month of conference play left? Take your technicalities elsewhere: There’s plenty left to decide in the conference that’s home to the defending national champs (including what’s wrong with those defending national champs, as North Carolina sits mired in a three-game losing streak), but it’s all settled at the top, where the Cavaliers hold a commanding three-game cushion in first place after Wednesday night’s 74–64 win over Louisville to improve to 21–1 overall and 10–0 in conference play.

The latest win caps off a statement-making stretch in which Virginia has dispatched the three teams directly behind it in the standings: Clemson (which endured a 61–36 pasting in Charlottesville last week), Duke (victims of a Ty Jerome three-pointer with 39 seconds left that gave UVA its first win at Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1995) and now Louisville. The last two ACC regular season champs to take an undefeated conference record into the third day of February, which the Cavaliers will do when they visit Syracuse on Saturday, were 2012-13 Miami and 2005-06 Duke, J.J. Redick’s final year in college. Those Blue Devils actually didn’t lose in league play until March, then won the conference tournament to finish 30–3 and fell to LSU in the Sweet Sixteen. That’s where the Hurricanes’ tournament run ended, as well.

With the threat of a letdown looming after that emotional win at Duke over the weekend, Bennett coaxed an efficient, intelligent performance out of his team, which shot 53.7% from the floor, forced 13 Louisville turnovers and committed just nine fouls all game. The Cavaliers took the lead for good on a three by sophomore leading scorer Kyle Guy with 3:24 left in the first half and held the Cardinals at arm’s length the rest of the way.

It’s hard to find two losses for the Cavaliers on the schedule from here until the ACC tournament, let alone three: They won’t see Duke or North Carolina again until Brooklyn, and upcoming road trips to fringe Top 25 vote-getters Florida State and Miami seem less treacherous than the return engagement with Louisville on March 1.

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Of course, regular-season excellence is a well-traveled road for recent Virginia teams, which have developed a habit of running aground for one reason or another in tournament play. While those demons can’t be dispelled until March, the way this team has responded to adversity seems to augur well. With the news that senior guard Nigel Johnson would serve a three-game suspension dropping an hour before tipoff, freshman Marco Anthony, who had made just 10 appearances all year and averaged 1.3 points per game, came off the bench to pour in 10 points. Guy put the offense on his shoulders as Louisville tried to turn up the intensity to keep pace down the stretch, finishing with 22 points on 10-of-20 shooting. And when the Cardinals cut the margin to five with under three minutes to play, Jerome delivered the dagger again, draining a high-arcing three as the final second ticked off the shot clock and sinking another on Virginia’s next possession to push the lead back to double digits. That type of late-game composure on offense has often been the missing ingredient in promising seasons past.

There’s no telling whether any of those little moments will feel as significant as they do now come ACC tournament time in early March, but it’s safe to assume that the Cavs will be the team to beat at Barclays Center. By that point, they could have a No. 1 seed firmly in hand, with a convincing case to be the nation’s top overall seed after a run of dominant displays against their fellow conference contenders.