Virginia is an odd defending national champion. The Cavaliers were led by veterans in their redemptive march to Minneapolis last year. They lost their three best players, with Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De'Andre Hunter moving on to bigger and better things. Odds of a repeat were slim-to-none, and everyone in the college basketball world entered this campaign on the same page.
Tony Bennett's team appeared intensely beatable once conference play began. A home loss to North Carolina State on Jan. 20 capped a stretch of four losses in five games. With a middling 15-7 record and the bubble approaching, something switched. Virginia started playing like a team with serious March aspirations, winning nine of 10, and is currently enjoying a six-game winning streak.
Last night, the Cavs stayed alive in the chase for an ACC crown by edging past Duke, 52-50. The traditional pack-line defense swallowed every Blue Devil scoring chance. Jay Huff blocked 10 shots, the final one coming on a Vernon Carey Jr. look that could have tied the game, while adding 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Mamami Diakite continued his stellar play and Kihei Clark continued to mature into a capable floor general.
Add Braxton Key to this trio and there's a lot to like. This team has championship experience and a game plan that travels. Virginia leads the nation in points allowed/game at 52.7. Playing it is an exercise in frustration. Virginia is the very definition of an unappealing matchup.
And here's the thing. One of the best sides in the country could potentially see them in the second round. The Cavaliers were a No. 9 seed in Joe Lunardi's Bracketology and a No. 10 in Jerry Palm's entering the weekend. They seem destined for that 8-9 game.
Potential No. 1 seeds know they'll have the superior team in any second-round matchup. But there's something uniquely unsettling about Virginia. Given their druthers, one would imagine a Gonzaga or Kansas would rather take its chances with a less worrying draw.
There's something to be said for having a signature style. There's something to be said for having a roster that's experienced a national championship. And there's something to be said for a team playing its best basketball of the year as the calendar turns to March.
Virginia is starting to feel scary.