Rising to the competition

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Brogdon played 38 minutes and led Virginia with 15 points. He made two free throws with 10 seconds to play, icing the game. 

Porter Dickie | Cavalier Daily

As the ESPN showcase at John Paul Jones Arena became more of a defensive clinic than an evenhanded dual during the first half Saturday night, it was easy to forget that the opposition is a top-10 program.

It was not South Carolina State, Rutgers, Harvard or Davidson. Rather, it was the Louisville Cardinals and their Hall of Fame coach, Rick Pitino. It was a team with three national championships, 10 Final Four appearances and the nation's ninth-ranked roster.

It was one of the most storied programs in college basketball, making its first appearance in Charlottesville as an ACC foe.

Yet, like the overmatched, undermanned non-conference opponents before them, Louisville crumbled under the Cavaliers' defensive pressure. Five minutes without a point. Eight minutes without a point. Ten minutes without a point. By the time Louisville's score ticked up from 13 in the second half, over 12 minutes had elapsed and Virginia had built a comfortable double-digit lead.

Meanwhile, Pitino was left dumbfounded by his team's inability to execute offensively and awestruck by his opponent's discipline and defensive talent.

“They’re just well drilled and schooled at what they do,” Pitino said. “It’s brilliant. I love what they do and I was trying to teach my freshman six weeks ago to look at how this team plays as one. They’re on a string moving with the ball.”

On an eventful evening in which the team's scoring leader went down with a fractured finger that will sideline him for weeks, ESPN set up shop for the third consecutive ranked matchup featuring the Cavaliers, and Virginia earned its first top-10 win of the season, it was that admission by Pitino in the JPJ Press Room that may have the most long-term significance. Louisville — the 2013 national champion program — now looks at tape of the Cavaliers to learn how to play effectively.

Being competitive with elite competition is a sign that a program is arriving. Being emulated by elite competition? That is a sign that the program has arrived.

For much of the 25 years in between Ralph Sampson leaving Charlottesville and Tony Bennett’s arrival, storied teams and legendary coaches have often passed through town on their way to history. Fans would come in droves simply to see the visitors put on a mesmerizing show, like watching the Harlem Globetrotters dispose of the Washington Generals. It was theater without suspense, the Cavaliers on the court only to play foil for the opposition.

Virginia has often been a part of college basketball history, but rarely in the past quarter century has it been the team making it. Things have changed markedly in the past 15 months.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Cavaliers have played their best basketball against the nation's top teams and top coaches. They beat Syracuse and Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim to clinch the ACC regular season title last season. They beat Duke and Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski later that year to claim the conference tournament crown. They beat North Carolina and Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams just this past week to improve to 20-1. And Saturday, they beat Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino in his first trip to Charlottesville.

With the victory against Louisville, Bennett became the only active coach to beat all five active Hall of Fame coaches: the four ACC legends and SMU's Larry Brown, whom Virginia defeated in November 2013. The fact that all five victories have come in the past 15 months alone is a testament to just how fast the Cavalier program has risen, outpacing the improvements made by the ACC with the additions of Louisville, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame in the past two years.

As Virginia faced its third straight top-15 opponent for the first time since 1997 Saturday night and the bleachers filled early with orange-clad fans and Cavalier legends past and present, Charlottesville witnessed something remarkable.

Virginia basketball is no longer just a participant in college basketball's biggest games. It is a major player — perhaps the main attraction — in a newly rejuvenated conference, one that arguably has the best collection of basketball programs ever assembled in NCAA history.

Never in the 62-year history of the ACC has the conference hosted two top-10 matchups on the same day until Saturday, when No. 3 Virginia faced No. 9 Louisville and No. 10 Notre Dame traveled to No. 4 Duke. The Cavaliers were the class of the group, on paper and on the court. It was telling that ESPN scheduled the Virginia game for prime time — again — while the Duke-Notre Dame rematch was given an afternoon time slot.

That fact reveals the two most significant things — Justin Anderson's devastating hand injury notwithstanding — to come out of Saturday's victory. The ACC, which added a pair of Hall of Fame coaches in conference realignment to join its existing pair of Hall of Fame coaches, is once again the envy of the college basketball world. But secondly, and far more importantly for Cavalier fans, Virginia is now a worthy peer these storied programs gear up to face.

Rather than entering the postgame press conference Saturday to hear the Cavaliers talk about what an honor it was to host legendary coach Rick Pitino for the first time, it was Pitino doling out compliments. Unprompted in his opening statement, he raved about what an incredible program Virginia has built.

“This is a great venue to play college basketball, I think its one of the best I’ve seen,” Pitino said. “It’s my first time here. I think the crowd’s great. I think they’re on top of you. I think the environment is awesome and I think their team is awesome. They can make it very difficult.”

For 12 minutes beginning midway through the first half, Virginia made it just about impossible for Louisville. During that flawless exhibition of team defense, the 2013 national champion Cardinals looked a little bit like the Washington Generals: a foil for the main attraction.

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