As I, Virginia fan No. 655,321, sat on my couch and watched the Cavalier men's basketball team struggle to catch up to Florida State Saturday afternoon, a knot began forming in the pit of my stomach. What was going on? How could we (note the use of the first person, a cardinal sin for any self-respecting fan) not crush the sorry Seminoles, especially after knocking off No. 3 Duke three days earlier?
Ten minutes into the first half, sometime between Delvon Arrington's eighth and ninth impossible twisting layups, it suddenly dawned on me: All that hype I'd heard about the strength of the ACC was true.
Since the conference began its national resurgence a year or two ago, the coaches have carped incessantly about the dangers that lurk around every ACC corner, particularly away from home. "You've got to come to play every game ... we can't take anyone lightly ... on any given night ... blah, blah, blah." It's enough to make a cynical pseudo-journalist want to turn in his press pass - after the free pregame meal, of course.
I dismissed all the blather as mere coachspeak, designed to cover their respective behinds if their guys got smacked silly by the last-place team in the conference. When Pete Gillen would caution against overlooking the likes of Clemson or FSU in anticipation of next week's contest with Duke or UNC, my immediate thought was usually, "Right, coach. So, about the Blue Devils ..." It just seemed automatic that a team like Virginia - or Duke, Carolina, Wake or Maryland - would roll over the low-level ACC teams, even on the road.
At this point, that line of thinking seems shaky at best. The Cavs' razor-thin margin of victory over the eighth-place Seminoles was Exhibit A, but when the No. 1 Tar Heels lost Sunday to the cellar-dwellers from Clemson, the defense rested.
There's almost no reason for any further evidence. The Tigers are the worst team in the conference. They have played all season without Chucky Gilmore, their best interior defender, and just regained the services of Adam Allenspach and Ray Henderson, their only other mildly legitimate big men. I mean, you know you're in trouble when Tomas "The Geese" Nagys is playing important minutes. Yet somehow Clemson managed to win by 10 against the vaunted Tar Heels, the top-ranked team in the nation.
After scoring machine Will Solomon sat down with four fouls, the Tigers actually increased their lead. Saturday in Tallahassee, Arrington carried much of the FSU load by himself, but the result was the same: The bottom feeder played just as well as - if not better than - its opponent from the top of the conference food chain.
Yes, my frustration with the Cavaliers prompted me to hurl my hat at the television at one point late in the first half. I admit that freely. But after careful analysis and a bit of meditative breathing, I have come to the conclusion that the ACC coaches are correct - the conference is a dastardly minefield of challenging teams.
I urge you to follow me to sanity. Of course, if Virginia loses at home to Clemson on Feb. 28, I reserve the right to complain about it for at least a week.