Four Takeaways from Virginia-Virginia Tech
1. The rivalry is alive and well.
After a thoroughly humiliating football season culminating with a home loss to hated in-state rival Virginia Tech — the 10th consecutive loss in the series — Virginia fans were more than ready for revenge. The majority of the 14,215-person sellout crowd — including yours truly — would not be disappointed, as the Cavaliers dominated the Hokies as if they were playing an actual team of gobblers. The 20-point rout was punctuated by a rare Teven Jones one-handed jam.
It was Virginia’s fourth consecutive win against Virginia Tech and fifth in six tries. Though the Hokies will have you believe football is the only sport they play, it was a glorious day to be a Virginia fan — if only there was a Commonwealth Cup for basketball too. And while the Hokies have gravitated toward the conference cellar recently, the Cavaliers said they did practice a bit harder last week for the rivalry game.
“Me and [senior guard Joe Harris], this is our last time playing Virginia Tech at home,” senior forward Akil Mitchell said. “To feel the energy in the stadium, the energy and the buzz around the town because it’s Virginia Tech — no matter their record — it’s always exciting.”
2. Joe Harris is not the offense.
A lot was made of Harris’s low scoring numbers in the early season. The senior guard scored at least 20 points in nine games last season, compared to just one this year in the Cavaliers’ blowout of Hampton. Ever since scoring 36 points against Duke last February, he hasn’t come close to reaching that total again.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Harris became the focal point of opposing teams’ scouting reports, and it became evident early in the season opposing teams were going out of their way to lock down Harris and force someone else to beat them.
But the main reason? These Cavaliers don’t need Harris to score 20 points per game to win in the ACC, unlike last year’s squad.
Malcolm Brogdon has proven to be as lethal to opposing defenses as Harris, with his ability to handle the point, penetrate off the dribble or stroke it from long range. Brogdon has led the Cavaliers in scoring five times this season — as has Harris — and has scored in double figures in every ACC game thus far.
While he made a living against Duke by attacking the lane and getting to the line, Brogdon showed just how prolific he can be from beyond the arc against Virginia Tech. The Hokies left him open, and he cooked and served them up on a Thanksgiving platter in return. Brogdon posted a career-best 18 points and four triples. Even more impressive? His four 3-balls came in just five attempts.
Brogdon averages a team-high 15.0 points per game in ACC play, while Harris contributes 12.6. But on coach Tony Bennett’s deepest Virginia team yet, the Cavaliers can compete even when the guard tandem has an off night. Sophomore guard Justin Anderson has also led the team in scoring five games, and is the third Cavalier to average double figures in conference play with 10.3 points, despite coming off the bench.
Mitchell and forwards Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill are always threats to score double digits inside, particularly with heady guards like London Perrantes, Harris and Brogdon looking to spread the ball and pass up good looks for great looks.
“We were getting so many open shots that there were some that we had to turn down,” Brogdon said. “I know I had to turn down a couple even though they were open and easy, but it was too early in the offense and we needed to get more of a rhythm going.”
3. Harris is more than his offensive production.
Harris’s offensive production may have declined, but he has never been more important to the team. His leadership is unquestioned on the court and when the Cavaliers are looking to get something started or need a big shot, they usually don’t have to look farther than Harris.
On Bennett’s teams, everyone is expected to play defense. Harris’s defense has never been questioned, but it was on full display against Virginia Tech. Harris locked onto leading scorer Jarell Eddie, holding the senior forward to just seven points on 2-of-10 from the field. Furthermore, Eddie was a dismal 1-of-7 from 3-point range, after coming in making 43.1 percent of his attempts.
The team may be scoring more than last year, but the pack-line defense still reigns supreme under Tony Bennett.
4. The real test is still to come.
Virginia is 6-1 to start ACC play for the first time since the 1982-83 season — Ralph Sampson’s senior year — but don’t tell that to them.
“I guess it’s cool, but it shouldn’t mean a whole lot to us,” Harris said.
After starting the season ranked for the first time since Feb. 2012, Virginia gradually fell from grace with losses to VCU, Wisconsin and Green Bay. After a 35-point blowout loss to an unranked Tennessee squad, it looked like it was time to start tempering expectations for this year’s team.
But the loss proved to be just what the Cavaliers needed, and the team went on a tear to begin its conference schedule. A single Duke-friendly bounce away from being undefeated in the ACC, expectations are sky-high yet again.
But every game in the ACC is a potential trap game, and Virginia still has six games away from the comforts of JPJ — culminating in the final ACC regular season matchup with outgoing rival Maryland at the Comcast Center in College Park. It is just too early to count on an NCAA bid, despite how well the team is playing.
However, the next week will be very telling in the team’s ultimate fate. The Cavaliers visit South Bend, Ind. Tuesday, where Notre Dame beat then-No. 7 Duke 79-77 and led then-No. 3 Ohio State by eight with a minute left to play before falling 64-61. Though the Irish have their share of losses at 11-9, including a 2-5 conference record, they have proven to be dangerous at home.
Virginia continues its Big East road trip Sunday, visiting No. 20 Pitt and the Oakland Zoo, notorious for being one of the nation’s toughest places to play. Pitt and Virginia are currently tied for second in the ACC at 6-1, though the Panthers have played a weaker ACC slate overall. They led the Orange late on the road before falling 59-54, and are undoubtedly a dangerous, top-tier ACC team capable of playing with anyone in the country.
The Cavaliers have begun to gel as a team, but now is not the time to be content.
“We know what it’s like to lose,” Mitchell said. “We’ve lost a couple games, we’ve gotten blown out and we’ve been embarrassed. We know what it’s like to be up at the top and then to lose that feeling. So we understand what we have to do to win and be successful and that’s what we’re trying to do.”