CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Some numbers still identify Virginia as one of the elite teams in college basketball, especially on the defensive end — long their calling card under coach Tony Bennett.
Except, that is, for the ones that put a Top 25 number before their name.
But in a season that certainly qualifies as a rebuilding one, the Cavaliers finally seem to be all on the same page, and are playing like a team to be reckoned with again.
Virginia (16-5, 7-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) has virtually lived in the top 10 for several years, but the two times they’ve played their way into the poll this year, they quickly followed with blowout losses, first 65-41 against No. 6 Wisconsin, then 77-54 at Memphis. Their five losses have come by an average of 20.8 points.
But things are getting better. Their 65-53 victory over Notre Dame on Wednesday night was their fifth in a row and 22nd in a row at home, the longest active home winning streak in the nation. They hope to continue their resurgence on Saturday when they play at Clemson (14-6, 4-5), which is 8-2 at home.
“I think we’re improving. Still have a ways to go,” Bennett said after the victory against the Fighting Irish, which avenged a 76-54 loss in South Bend on Dec. 30, their worst ACC loss since 2017. “Early, you could see, trying to find our identity. … We just kept chipping away, simplifying some things on both ends and really demanding more, quite honestly. But also being more patient, if that makes sense.”
The need for patience mostly came from having to incorporate an influx of transfers and freshman after the program lost seven players following last season. Three of them, groomed for expanded roles this year, opted to transfer instead.
The losses could have been harsher, but point guard Reece Beekman decided to return after testing the NBA waters, giving Bennett some much-needed leadership.
“That’s kind of a reason I came back to school was to lead these guys and have another opportunity to have Virginia in the top of the standings,” Beekman said after leading the way with 21 points against the Irish. “It’s still a long season. We’ve got much to improve, but I like how we’re trending in the right direction.”
The reigning ACC defensive player of the year, Beekman is 12 points away from 1,000 for his career and leads the ACC in assists (6.2 per game) and steals (2.4).
A fellow starter, sophomore Isaac McKneely, ranks second nationally in 3-point percentage (48.1) and arrived last year as West Virginia’s Mr. Basketball with the benefit of having played a version of the Pack-Line defense in high school.
Learning the defense is essential at Virginia, and as transfers Jordan Minor (Merrimack), Jacob Groves (Oklahoma) and Andrew Rohde (St. Thomas, Minn.) have picked it up, it’s made them bigger factors, greatly expanding Bennett’s options.
Groves scored a season-high 18 points against the Irish, on 6 for 8 3-point shooting. Minor is physical and has scored in double figures in three of the past five games after not doing it at all in any of his first 14. Rohde, a third starter in the backcourt, averages just 5.3 points but has 63 assists and only 25 turnovers.
“The sign of a good team, which they are, and a well-coached team, is they are starting to hit their stride right now,” Irish coach Micah Shrewsberry said.
Perhaps the clearest sign that things are coming together is that only one of the Cavaliers’ last six opponents has reached 60 points. They haven’t finished lower than sixth in scoring defense nationally in the past 13 seasons — they’ve been first six times — and rank among the leaders in field goal percentage defense, too.
The benefits come at both ends.
“Why we’ve been a better team as of late is we’ve been better defensively,” Bennett said. “And I think that helps a lot of things. We’ve just simplified.”
They hope the formula keeps them trending upward.
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