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No. 1 men’s basketball gears up for ACC Tournament

With the regular season officially clinched, the Cavaliers will now set their sights on the ACC Tournament

<p>Junior guard Ty Jerome, team leader in steals, can force the Wolfpack to make mistakes Tuesday night.</p>

Junior guard Ty Jerome, team leader in steals, can force the Wolfpack to make mistakes Tuesday night.

After picking up a dominating win against Pittsburgh, the No.1 Virginia men’s basketball team secured the outright regular season title for the third time in the past five seasons. 

“I'm very excited for the guys that have been in this program to win an outright title,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “That's no small feat.”

The Cavaliers (26-2, 15-1 ACC) will now travel to Brooklyn, N.Y. in pursuit of accomplishing another feat, as they vie for the program’s third ACC Championship. The last time Virginia won the title was in the 2013-14 season when the Cavaliers defeated Duke in the final, with a score of 72-63. Virginia was also the regular season champion that year. The only other time Virginia has claimed the ACC Tournament title was in 1976.

This year, Virginia has proven that it is highly capable of having a chance to cut down the nets at the Barclays Center and win the championship. Among the many achievements for the Cavaliers thus far this season, they were recognized as the top team in the country by the AP Top 25 poll for the first time since 1982.

“We shattered my expectations,” graduate transfer guard Nigel Johnson said. “I expected to be somewhere in the top 4 or 5 in the ACC, but to be outright champs and No. 1 in the country – I didn't even expect that."

Virginia’s offense is currently led by sophomore guard Kyle Guy, who is averaging 14.5 points per game and boasts a 28-game streak for making a three-pointer. Senior guard and team captain Devon Hall has also been instrumental on offense for the Cavaliers, averaging 11.8 points per game, shooting .450 from beyond the three-point arc and making 90.9 percent of his free throws. 

Sophomore guard Ty Jerome has proved to be a key contributor for Virginia, as well, with his 10.1 average points per game and his ability to score in high-pressure situations. Off the bench, redshirt freshman guard De’Andre Hunter has delivered consistently solid performances, and has demonstrated he is a major weapon for the Cavaliers. Hunter earned ACC Rookie of the Week honors after scoring 22 points in Virginia’s 59-50 win at Miami on Feb. 13.

However, in line with Bennett’s typical teams, offense hasn’t been the star of this Virginia basketball team. Rather, it’s Virginia’s superb defense that has been causing a buzz in the college basketball world. The Cavaliers are allowing an average of just 52.1 points per game, and are holding teams to 29.6 percent shooting from three. Virginia has also held three opponents to less than 40 points this season, and has held 22 teams to 60 points or fewer.

The Cavaliers will now try to translate that success into the ACC Tournament, where they have already secured the No. 1 seed and a double bye. Virginia’s first game will be in the quarter-final round, which is the same round that they were eliminated from the tournament last year after losing 71-58 to Notre Dame.

No. 5 Duke (24-6, 12-5 ACC), who was last year’s champion and has a historically strong track record at the ACC Tournament with 20 titles under its belt, will undoubtedly be a challenge for the Cavaliers should the two schools meet. While Virginia beat the Blue Devils 65-63 earlier in the season, Duke has a talented squad that features freshman forward Marvin Bagley III, senior guard Grayson Allen, and freshman forward Wendell Carter Jr. Bagley III dropped an astounding 30 points on the Cavaliers in that contest Jan. 27.  

The No. 9 Tar Heels (22-7, 11-5 ACC) are another school with a fantastic tournament track record, claiming 18 ACC Championships themselves. Although the Cavaliers beat then-No. 12 North Carolina convincingly with a 61-49 win at John Paul Jones arena back in early January this season, the Tar Heels have knocked Virginia out of the ACC tournament two times in the past three years. Additionally, North Carolina senior guard Joel Berry II, who is averaging 17.7 points per game this season, has been successful against Virginia when the two teams have clashed. In the 2016 ACC Title game, Berry II had 19 points as he guided the Tarheels to a 61-57 win, and he also had 17 points in the meeting between the teams this year.

However, regardless of what opponents Virginia has to face in the tournament, the Cavaliers have shown that they are an elite team with the potential to have great success in the postseason.

“We've got to keep playing to the best of our abilities,” Bennett said. “We're going to try to improve, try to prepare the right way and play to win. We cannot get more complicated than that.”

The first game for Virginia will be on March 8 at 12 p.m. against a to-be-determined opponent.