Believe your eyes
Coach Tony Bennett and the Virginia basketball team are trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Believe what you see, not what you hear.
The Cavaliers have won seven of eight games, 14 straight at home and have notched nationally televised victories against Wisconsin, North Carolina, NC State and now, Virginia Tech. Their second-in-the-nation scoring defense made the Hokies’ their ninth ACC opponent in 11 games to score fewer than 60 points. They netted more than 70 points of their own for the third straight game. And they matched No. 2 Duke with their eighth ACC win.
Yet, the Cavaliers’ success seems to be viewed by the nation as one big mistake, a statistical fluke that will be corrected in due time. The most recent AP rankings listed Duke second in the nation with 1,515 points and Miami third with 1,499 points. Virginia remains unranked after creeping up to four points. The most puzzling part: Cavalier players and coaches appear to agree with the voters’ perception.
“We’re confident but we know who we are,” said senior point guard Jontel Evans after matching a career high with seven rebounds to go along with eight points and six assists. “Coach always stresses humility. You can’t think too highly of yourself, and you can’t think too lowly … We’re a team that has small room for error.”
The team’s margin for error has been anything but small during the last three games. Virginia has outscored its opponents by 66 points during that stretch, winning each game by double digits. They are 6-0 against teams inside the RPI 100. Wins keep piling up, but perceptions move glacially. Losses to CAA opponents George Mason, Delaware and Old Dominion weigh down the Cavaliers’ NCAA Tournament resume, as do conference road losses to mediocre Wake Forest, Clemson and Georgia Tech.
“We knew after the Georgia Tech game that we would have to put a run together if we wanted to have a chance of [making the Tournament,]” Mitchell said. “Since then, we haven’t really talked about it.”
Experts seem unwilling to believe or make sense of what has transpired during the past several weeks, and the Cavaliers appear to have no interest in self-reflection. Pundits seem to have written the story of Virginia’s season before all the games had been played, assuming the graduation of Mike Scott and the reliance on multiple freshmen would be too much to overcome.
What few foresaw is the night-and-day improvements of junior guard Joe Harris and junior forward Akil Mitchell, along with the revival of Evans after dealing with a foot injury early this season. Those three have been the driving force behind a unit that has produced enough offense in recent weeks to be competitive with any team when coupled with its vaunted pack-line defense.
Harris lit up John Paul Jones Arena by opening the game with three consecutive 3-pointers against the rival Hokies Tuesday, finishing with a career-high 26 points for his fourth 20-point performance in five games. Mitchell continued to play like one of the most dominant post players in the ACC, scoring 17 points and grabbing eight rebounds. Evans attempted just seven shots, but was once again the guiding force for a revitalized Cavalier offense.
“It was impressive,” Bennett said of Harris. “It makes me look like a good coach when he comes out and plays like that.”
The three combined for 28 of the team’s 36 first-half points, including the first 15 of the game and later, a 12-0 streak that gave Virginia a lead it would not relinquish. With Virginia leading 21-20, Evans drove through the heart of the paint and finished with a strong lay-up. Mitchell added a clean jumper from the free throw line and Harris followed with his fourth and fifth 3-pointers of the period. By the time Evans found Mitchell for a fast-break lay-up, the lead had swelled to 33-20. Virginia finished with 14 assists on 22 field goals.
“I feel like we got that chemistry,” Evans said of the trio. “Everybody knows Joe’s the first option, Akil is second and if it’s time for me to score, then my teammates have confidence in me to make that play or get them the ball so they can score.”
Bennett’s team is on pace to match or exceed its predicted finish in the ACC Preseason Coaches Poll for the fourth straight year — something the brightest basketball minds in the country have evidently overlooked. Apparently, there is some feature of this and many Cavalier teams before it that is under-appreciated.
Maybe it’s that offensive flair is more memorable than defensive battles. Maybe the Cavaliers do not have as many household names on their roster as other teams. But the defining feature of Bennett’s tenure at the University is that the results have always exceeded the predictions. The whole has been greater than the sum of its parts.
“We are doing a really nice job of giving up good shots for great shots,” Harris said. “We’re a very unselfish team and you can see that in our play.”
What has transpired in the past several weeks is not an illusion or slight of hand. The Cavaliers are a talented team, capable of competing with the best in the country. Like every other opponent it will face, Virginia has its shortcomings. Outside of Harris, the team has its share of inconsistent shooters. It lacks post depth and over-relies on unproven freshmen. Just don’t buy into the company line that this is not a dangerous team.
“Everyone is trying to keep a level head and stay humble,” sophomore guard Paul Jesperson said. “I think we need to go out there and play every game like we’re 0-0.”
Approaching every game like it’s a new season is a fine mentality for players to have. But there is no reason why fans and analysts should not look at the standings and trust what they see.