Gas up the bandwagon: Virginia basketball is back

virginia basketballLose on the road at Virginia Tech, at Georgia Tech, at Florida State. Virginia finally broke through Tuesday with a historic comeback at Wake Forest, but still, Wake isn’t Louisville.

The Cardinals were 13-0 at home coming in on Saturday, scoring 80.9 points per game, and sixth in the nation in defensive efficiency.

A 63-47 final from the Yum Center was what the self-loathing fan base expected.

But Louisville was the one scoring the 47, so now it’s back to Final Four or bust.

Gas up the bandwagon, because the team that started 12-1 with wins over West Virginia and Villanova is back.

And actually, no, that’s not entirely true, because even that earlier version of the 2015-2016 Cavs didn’t play as good as Virginia looked on Saturday.

UVA shot 57.8 percent for the game, admirable, sure – but as good as that was, we’ve seen that before out of this group, which came in ranked ninth in the nation in offensive efficiency.

Louisville’s starters scored six in the final 53 seconds against freshmen and walk-ons to get to 47. The Cardinals, third in the ACC in field-gpal percentage, at 49.1 percent, shot 21.1 percent in the first half and 32.7 percent for the game.

Another number for you: .758. That’s how many points per possession Louisville scored on Saturday.

Virginia had famously been struggling to get stops on defense basically since ACC play started, and coming in the Cavs were just 46th nationally in defensive efficiency, giving up .966 points per possession, after ranking first in 2014-2015.

Coach Tony Bennett has been saying for a couple of weeks that he thought his team was ready to turn a corner defensively, but it was in the eye of the beholder. Wake Forest, most recently, had exploited the Pack-Line, going 6-of-9 from three-point range in the second half, forcing an exasperated Bennett into trying zone for a few minutes, before the Demon Deacons gave away the game at the free-throw line late.

Syracuse, in a UVA win earlier in the week, had hit 13-of-30 from three-point range to stay close. Hell, everybody and their brother has been making threes on Virginia since the calendar flipped to 2016.

The Cardinals were a modest 4-of-11 on threes on Saturday, and an eye-popping 12-of-38 on twos, while committing 18 turnovers.

Virginia, harassing all day long, had nine steals and blocked five shots, basically looking like Louisville had looked all season.

To that point: Louisville’s first three losses came at Michigan State (71-67), at Kentucky (75-73) and at Clemson (66-62) by a combined 10 points.

Now the Cards have a 16-point loss at home, their biggest loss in the brief six-year history of the Yum Center, and it came at the hands of a team that had one ACC road win on a wing and a prayer.

It’s funny how those kinds of things can play out, though. You get a lucky win on the road against a bad team that utterly outplayed you, and though it might not make sense to those on the outside, it builds confidence, that, hey, see, we can do it.

Along the same lines, I’m inclined to caution fans from getting too excited about one win, even one this impressive, because I don’t think the team was as bad as some thought after the losses at the Techs and FSU.

I did think, though, that this group’s best chances for sustainable success came by focusing on the offensive end.

The Pack-Line was as good, no, better, Saturday than I’ve ever seen it.

That’s why we need to gas up the bandwagon.

Virginia basketball is, indeed, back.

– Column by Chris Graham



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Team of Destiny: Inside UVA Basketball's improbable run

Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, by Jerry Ratcliffe and Chris Graham, is available for $25.

The book, with additional reporting by Zach Pereles, Scott Ratcliffe and Scott German, will take you from the aftermath of the stunning first-round loss to UMBC in 2018, and how coach Tony Bennett and his team used that loss as the source of strength, through to the ACC regular-season championship, the run to the Final Four, and the thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech to win the 2019 national title, the first in school history.

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