DOUGHERTY: Hoos on top?

Virginia inches closer to Villanova atop the AP Top 25, drawing questions on who deserves the top spot

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It has been widely mentioned this year in men’s college basketball that no true dominant teams exist. A lack of blue blood dominance has left many solid teams in the race to jockey for the national spotlight as they vie for a good seeding come the NCAA Tournament. 

The two teams leading the pack right now — as far as the Associated Press is concerned — have recently separated themselves from the pack as legitimate title contenders.

No. 1 Villanova has held the top spot in the AP poll rankings since Jan. 8, but the growing momentum from No. 2 Virginia has basketball writers torn on the top spot. Virginia garnered 16 first place votes in the Feb. 5 poll with Villanova retaining 48.

Does Virginia deserve the top spot? It’s hard to say since the teams are not scheduled to play this year, but some analysis on each team’s advantages may shed some light.

Offense

Villanova’s offense has been nothing short of masterful this season. The Wildcats average 88.4 points per game — good for third in the country — and lead all teams in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive rankings with a 131.0 adjusted offense rating. Coach Jay Wright has assembled a team of lethal shooters from beyond the arc, with his five top scorers averaging at least 41 percent from three. While Virginia’s offense has been efficient — the team sits at 34th on Pomeroy’s offensive rankings — its slow pace of play hampers the team’s ability for a prolific offensive attack. Villanova’s incredible scoring depth gives them the edge here.

Advantage: Villanova

Defense

The Wildcats are no joke on the defensive end, ranking 42nd in adjusted defensive per Pomeroy. The team has rebounded nicely from losing top perimeter defender Josh Hart to graduation, with lengthy junior guard Mikal Bridges stepping into his role. It’s pretty much impossible to argue against Virginia here, though. The Cavaliers have held many opponents well below their scoring average during their red-hot streaking — most notably holding Duke’s top offense to 27 points below their average mark. Coach Tony Bennett’s modus operandi is in peak form.

Advantage: Virginia

Strength of Schedule

This may not be as clear cut as the following two debates, since Virginia plays in a stronger conference in the ACC than the Wildcats do in the Big East. Villanova owns signature wins against then No. 12 Gonzaga and at home against then No. 10 Xavier. Meanwhile, Virginia has taken down No. 4 Duke on the road and top-20 teams North Carolina and Clemson at home, though the team lacks a signature non-conference victory beyond a win against now-ranked Rhode Island. What can set the team’s apart, then, is their lone losses. The Cavaliers currently own the superior loss — on the road to No. 19 West Virginia — while the Wildcats lost at Butler, who now is unranked and has seven losses on the season. Virginia gets the slight edge here, though each team has some tough conference challenges ahead.

Advantage: Virginia

Standout Player

Many teams who advance far in March Madness often have one player who can take over when the going gets tough, and sophomore guard Kyle Guy has proven to be that for the Cavaliers. Guy’s penchant for the big shot is a quality that carries teams to championships, and as fans have seen in his three-point barrages in tight wins at VCU and at home versus Syracuse — in which he scored 29 and 22 — the sophomore can keep his team in any game. However, Villanova junior guard Jalen Brunson may very well be an All-American this year. He averages 19.4 points and five assists per game, and shoots an astounding 48.3 percent from deep, doing it all in the backcourt for the Wildcats. Brunson has been a major contributor to his team’s success since their 2016 National Championship season. For his experience and marksmanship, he gets the edge over Guy for now.

Advantage: Villanova

Sustainability

Though both teams have been rolling since the beginning of 2018, each has gotten into some injury trouble over the past week. Villanova junior guard Phil Booth broke his hand early last week and is out indefinitely. Averaging 11.6 points, the junior’s presence was certainly missed when Villanova had to grind out a three-point road victory over Marquette with only seven players. Virginia has stayed relatively healthy — though the suspension of senior forward Nigel Johnson leaves the team thin until Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech, and flu season has nearly caused some major absences. Both teams must brave a gauntlet as the season closes — including rematches with Xavier on the road and Butler at home for the Wildcats, and tough road games at Florida State and No. 25 Miami for the Cavaliers. A loss for either team could easily occur if Virginia’s offense goes dormant or the three balls aren’t falling for Villanova. One or both might fall from the top, but it’s awfully hard to tell who with each playing so well.

Advantage: Split

Slim margins of advantages separate No. 1 Villanova and No. 2 Virginia, making it nearly impossible to discern which should truly be crowned the best team in college basketball. The major takeaway from the polls — while it may be inconclusive — is that Bennett and Wright have brought their teams atop many basketball writers’ lists of national title contenders, as each have stayed true to their coaching identities.

We’ll most likely have to wait until the end of March — or beginning of April — to see which team can indisputably claim the top spot. Hopefully for college basketball fans, that’s in the form of a thrilling head-to-head.

Alec Dougherty is a Senior Editor for the Cavalier Daily. He can be reached by email at a.dougherty@cavalierdaily.com or on Twitter at @aduggs96. 

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