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Any fan of UVA will tell you that until tonight our collective focus had been on Notre Dame but we'd all be less than honest if we didn't admit we were looking beyond the match-up with the (not so) fighting Irish to the game Sunday in Pittsburgh.
Simply put, for Virginia, the road games against Pitt and Syracuse remain the biggest challenge for the rest of our schedule.
For those who didn't watch the Notre Dame, it was a typical ACC win for the Cavaliers, jumping out to an early-20 point lead and dominating the Irish at both ends of the floor: Virginia's wins have all been double digit, including three on the road, and their average win margin has been more than 20 points.
So what will you face on Sunday?
Start with a freshman point guard who has been a revelation, London Perrantes, who in ACC play has had 39 assists, 12 steals and only 9 turnovers while shooting 43% from 3-point land. He doesn't put up big scoring numbers because he doesn't have to. His composure, poise and handle are all unreal, and if it were not for Tyler Ennis, Perrantes would be getting a lot more ink. At the start of the season, he struggled on defense, but that part of his game has come on strong.
His backcourt mate, Malcolm Brogdon, has emerged as one of the best all-around players in the ACC. Here's his stat line against Notre Dame: 16 points on 7 of 10 shooting, including two 3-pointers, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 steals. At 6'5" and with a strong body, he's a tough match-up. He took November and December to play off the rust that comes after being red-shirted last year because of an injury -- he had played well the year before as a freshman.
Their backcourt play has been so good, swingman Joe Harris, who was a 1st-team ACC performer last year, has put up much less gaudy scoring numbers. In 8 ACC games he has shot 17-35 3PG, many from NBA 3-land.Just how far UVA has come is evident by their game at Florida State: Harris missed nearly the entire game after a minor concussion two minutes in but UVA still won on the road by a dozen points. Harris is not a one-dimensional shooter. He can drive and dish and has averaged nearly 3 assists a game in the ACC.
Akil Mitchell, a 2nd-team all ACC pick last year, has, like Harris, done less to score on a team with many more weapons. But Mitchell is still UVA's best rebounder and defender, with the quickness, length and smarts to challenge shots inside and out, not so much as a shot-blocker but as someone who forces shooters into bad shots.
The starting lineup is rounded out by 6'11 sophomore centre Mike Tobey, who has struggled with some inconsistency, but when he is on, opponents are in trouble. Tobey has a strong touch with either hand but has sometime had tough times getting off his shot against more physical play.
But what defines this Virginia team is its depth. Justin Anderson is UVA's best athlete and a spark plug off the bench who was their best player down the stretch last season. He can guard your best perimeter player or your big guy on the blocks and he often leads the team's transition offense and defense. He can also shoot, drive to the hole or make the great pass. Anthony Gill is a force scoring in the paint, with a nice combination of strength, agility and touch and an ability to draw fouls. His weakness has been his defense, but that has generally been improving. Both Anderson and Gill will get 20 minutes a game, giving UVA 7 guys who play a lot. Behind them, forward Evan Nolte is a 3-point specialist, Tevin Jones spells Perrantes at the point and Darius Atkins is an athletic forward whose time has been limited by the team's frontcourt depth.
The sum of the pieces has been greater than its parts. UVA plays a pack-line defense that most prevents penetration while still contesting outside shots. The result has been bad shots, forces passes and drives and turnovers - UVA's defensive efficiency has ranked in the top 5 nationally most of the year.
What's made UVA dominant is an offense that has grown to become very efficient too. Kenpom ranks it 69th right now but understand that ranking has been quickly climbing after a slow start that was the product of a team just learning to jell. ESPN has Virginia ranked as having the best BPI in the country in January.
None of that is to minimize the challenge of traveling to your home court and winning against a strong Panther team.
It's a critical match-up for both teams, and while I hope you end up on the short end of a winning UVA game, I look forward to the competition and welcome your team and your fans with open arms.