The ACC has a new contender in town — Virginia. Duke, Louisville and Florida State have dominated much of the Atlantic Coast Conference conversation this season and rightfully so. They have maintained positions atop the standings and have consistently been in the top-15 in national rankings. But look out, here comes the 'Hoos.
UVA is on a six-game winning streak with the latest a 52-50 victory on Saturday against Duke. The Cavaliers are No. 22 in the latest AP poll and are only one game back from first place in the ACC — a huge turnaround from when they began conference play 3-4.
"Even the games we've lost we've been in, with the exception of at Purdue, we've been in really under four minutes either with the lead or tied," Virginia coach Tony Bennett tells Andy Katz on the latest episode of March Madness 365. "I think in our last number of games where we've improved is guys are getting used to our system more but some guys are playing well."
Bennett's interview with Andy Katz begins about 3 minutes, 50 seconds into the podcast. UCLA head coach Mick Cronin and Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn also join this week's pod.
With the 'Hoos now comfortably in fourth in the ACC standings at 13-5 the thought of an ACC regular-season crown isn't outlandish. So, how can they get there?
The reigning NCAA champions have two games left on their schedule, both in the ACC, at Miami and then home against No. 10 Louisville. If they win out, and Florida State loses at least one game, the Cavs can at claim at least a share of the regular-season title. FSU finishes against Notre Dame (18-11, 9-9) and Boston College (13-16, 7-11).
The best chance for Virginia to be the outright champion and claim the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament is if the Cavaliers win out, Duke loses their final game against North Carolina and Florida State loses both of their final games. UVA would own the tiebreaker over Louisville at this point since the Cavs performed better collectively against Duke and FSU than the Cardinals did. Virginia is 1-0 versus Duke this season and 1-1 against the Seminoles. Louisville is 1-0 against Duke and 0-2 versus Florida State.
ACC standings as of 3/3/20:
"I think we can play with anybody and I think anybody can play with us," Bennett said. "You got to go and get it every time out and that's college basketball this year. It's just whoever is ready and playing well has the best chance to be successful more than other years, I think."
There isn't a guy playing as well right now, at least on the defensive side of the ball, as Jay Huff. The 7'1" forward from Durham, North Carolina started this six-game tear with a modest 8 point, 9 rebound and 2 block game against Notre Dame back on Feb. 11, but ended it against the team from his home town in Duke where he put up 15 points, 9 rebounds with an astounding 10 blocks.
Virginia leading scorer Mamadi Diakite is also having quite the stretch, averaging 14.67 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
Virginia's opponents have only averaged around 56 points per game in the past six games.
"There've been some times where we just gotta flat-out win it with our defense," Bennett said. "Last year's team we could win with our offense and our defense had to be just sound. This year, we have to try to win with our defense and the offense just has to be sound."
The average margin of victory has only been 4 points, allowing UVA to flex their clutch gene as well, including a game-sealing block by Huff at the end of the Duke game.