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Chris Graham: Remember me? The guy who declared the UVa. season “lost”?

tony-bennett-newlinks2The Dec. 30 loss to Tennessee seems decades ago now. UVa. is arguably the hottest team in college basketball, at least the hottest team in the ACC, with a 10-game winning streak and a 13-1 conference record.

But back on Dec. 30, after enduring an 87-52 shellacking in Knoxville to a team that is now a middling 16-10 overall and 7-6 in the SEC, coach Tony Bennett turned things around, to say the least.

A soon-to-be legendary meeting with team captain Joe Harris after the ut game prompted a change in approach that led to the elevation of London Perrantes as the starting point guard. With Perrantes at the point, that allowed for Malcolm Brogdon, who in no way resembles a point guard, to move over to two, put Joe Harris at the three, pushed Justin Anderson to sixth man, and the ‘Hoos have soared since.

You wouldn’t get it just looking at Perrantes’ numbers – 4.9 points and 4.2 assists per game in conference play – but the freshman is clearly the engine driving Virginia to the top of the ACC and national rankings.

And since Perrantes moved into the starting lineup for good, we’ve seen improvement in the numbers for Brogdon (9.5 points per game in nonconference play, 14.9 points per game in ACC play), Harris (11,1 ppg in nonconference, 12.1 ppg in ACC), and Anderson’s numbers have stayed steady despite getting less playing time off the bench (9.7 ppg in 23,4 minutes per game nonconference, 8.7 ppg in 21.2 mpg in the ACC).

It’s not just Perrantes moving into the starting lineup full time that has led to the 13-1 start in ACC play. It’s as much that Brogdon and Harris aren’t having to share the ball-handling duties as much as they were in November and December and thus are able to do more of what they do well: run around screens, drive the ball to the basket, spot up for open threes and the rest.

And Anderson provides an interesting spark off the bench, usually around the 14-minute mark in the first half, a little sooner in the second half. Anderson’s acceptance of this role has to get as much credit for the Cavs’ surge as anything else. Clearly as talented as anybody on the team and in the ACC, Anderson would start for the bulk of programs in the nation, but this team needs him to be the guy to come in off the bench, play D on the opponent’s top scorer some nights, provide a Vinnie Johnson-like microwave effect offensively other nights, and generally be a sort of glue player, a role much like current UVa. assistant coach and former UVa. player Jason Williford played for the really good Cav teams of the early 1990s.

Which brings me to my now-infamous grades. At the end of nonconference play, after the Tennessee loss, which dropped Virginia to 9-4, I gave the season a D- grade, and got called on the carpet by some fans who pointed out that Bennett put together a much more difficult November-December schedule than in years past, and should at least get some points for that.

I stand by the grade, even with hindsight being 20-20. That 9-4 Virginia team lost at home to VCU and Wisconsin, and lost on the road at Green Bay and Tennessee. Bennett still didn’t have a handle on his starting lineup and how to work in players from the deepest and most talented roster at UVa. since the mid-1990s.

And then he figured it out. That’s why some coaches get paid the big bucks. (Ahem, listening in, Mike London?) Something as simple as giving more minutes to a freshman who averages 4.9 points per game in ACC play turned the season around for UVa. basketball.

And don’t let the critics who say Virginia hasn’t played a tough ACC schedule fool you. According to data from ESPN, Virginia’s conference strength of schedule is 94th nationally, behind UNC (61) and Duke (67) but notably ahead of Syracuse (97), which lost its first game of the season last night to Boston College and is now in second place in the conference at 12-1.

And how has UVa. fared against ACC play? Again, look at the numbers, and you see that it’s no fluke that the ‘Hoos are in first place in the conference. According to StatSheet.com, Virginia ranks third in ACC play in offensive points per possession (1.10 ppp; Duke is first at 1.22, and Syracuse is second at 1.11). Then look over at the other end of the floor. Virginia is first in defensive points per possession by a wide margin (.90 ppp; Syracuse is second at 0.98, and UNC and Pitt are tied for third at 0.99).

Put it all together, and Virginia has an offensive efficiency rating of 110.3 and a defensive efficiency rating at a sick 89.8. The +20.5 margin is second to Duke (+20.7), which is currently third in the ACC at 10-3.

(Syracuse’s margin is +12.9.)

Again, back to the grades. We’re not done with ACC play yet, but obviously the ACC part of the regular season is looking like a solid A, and could move into A+ territory if Virginia can finish out at least 3-1 down the stretch.

Then we wait for the ACC Tournament, where the Virginia program has not been in action on a Saturday since 1995, and the NCAA Tournament, before we can get our final grade.

As with the college classes that we all took, the midterm grade is weighted a lot lower in the final overall assessment. Go 16-2 in the ACC, win a game or two in Greensboro and another couple of games in the Big Dance, and the 2013-2014 season is an easy A in the end.

Go further than Friday in the ACCs and past the Sweet 16 in the NCAAs, and all bets are off.


augusta free press
augusta free press