Getting to know you
Much ado was made heading into the season about the Big East’s invasion of the ACC. Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame all joined with the intention of breaking up the traditional Duke-UNC power structure, and through the early goings, it seemed effective. Syracuse is undefeated so far, and before a home loss to Duke Monday night, Pitt was holding firm in second place.
Virginia got its first look at an ACC newcomer Tuesday night with its inaugural trip to South Bend, where Notre Dame has traditionally dominated. A snowstorm forced the Cavaliers’ chartered flight to be rerouted to Chicago — not exactly the temperate Southeastern weather ACC teams are accustomed to — and Virginia came up against an Irish team sorely needing a win.
All of the circumstances pointed to a potentially dangerous game for the Cavaliers, but once again, Virginia manhandled its opponent in a 68-53 win, continuing the Irish’s rude awakening to the ACC and improving to 7-1 in conference play. In an unfamiliar environment, it was Notre Dame who was more out of its depth, struggling to compete with the Cavaliers on either end.
Virginia’s pack-line defense consistently flummoxed the Irish all night, forcing them to commit 20 turnovers, twice their season average. Before a 12-2 run to close out the first half, Notre Dame had made just five field goals. It was a comprehensive effort — seven different Cavaliers had a steal, including five from sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon.
Speaking of Brogdon, he showed up once again in a key conference game, finishing with an incredible line: 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting, seven rebounds, six assists and five aforementioned steals — the rebounds, assists and steals were all career highs. He’s now hit double figures in eight straight games, and his offensive presence is making him one of the more dangerous guards in the ACC.
There were so many questions surrounding Brogdon entering this season after he missed all of last year with an injury, but the sophomore is answering them all resoundingly. His poise against ACC opponents — both old and new — has been the driving force behind the team’s blazing conference start, and he looks like he is only improving with time.
But it may have been his backcourt mate, freshman London Perrantes, who turned more heads. He had just four points, but his five assists, often in spectacular fashion, were enough to have commentators Digger Phelps and Bob Knight fawning over him.
A perfectly timed pass down low to an open Brogdon for an easy layup made it seem impossible that coach Tony Bennett was able to snag Perrantes from the under the noses of so many other coaches between Charlottesville and California.
Perrantes is exactly what Bennett — or any coach, for that matter — needs at point guard. He’s unselfish, always looking first to facilitate the offense and find open teammates, and his ability to read the floor is spectacular. Phelps and Knight were out of adjectives by the end of the game to describe the freshman who looks nothing like a first year player right now.
Then there was that other Virginia guard — who would have thought before the season that it would take more than half of a column to mention Joe Harris? The senior finished with a tidy line — nine points, four assists, three steals, two rebounds — but with the team playing as well as it is together, 10 shots in 28 minutes is all he needed to contribute. Harris may not be having the dominating senior campaign many would have expected before the season, but with the team winning games by huge margins, neither Harris nor Virginia fans care.
The traditional ACC power structure is certainly being challenged this year, but it’s not just the Big East imports that are making noise. With the win, the Cavaliers are now looking down on Duke in the rankings, sitting firmly in second place behind Syracuse. Their seven ACC wins have come with an average margin of more than 18 points and their conference play is looking less and less like a fluke and more like the real deal.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey called Virginia the best team in the ACC after the game — he may still be confused with the transition and have forgotten about that team in upstate New York — but even so, the statement doesn’t seem that out of place. The Cavaliers have certainly proved themselves to be one of the best teams in the ACC in the new year.
Virginia now heads to Pittsburgh to take on another ACC newcomer, and a win would only reinforce what is becoming clear for the Cavaliers: old foe or new, Bennett’s squad doesn’t care. For a team on red shot streak, all ACC teams are created equal.