No. 2 Virginia, Bennett poised for another ACC title run
Tony Bennett guided Virginia to its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 38 years with a foundation in defense, smart play and hard work.
A season later, the No. 2 Cavaliers are off their best start since the Ralph Sampson era.
In a league featuring Hall of Fame coaches and marquee programs, Bennett and the Cavs are again atop the standings. They're one of the nation's last two unbeatens entering a stretch that could reveal whether they're as good as their ranking, starting Saturday against No. 4 Duke.
"It's still the same mindset: Will you be faithful to the things that have gotten you there?" Bennett said. "It doesn't change. Nothing changes. All of a sudden, you don't become someone you're not. That would be fool's gold. That would be a big mistake."
After some lean years before Bennett's arrival, a roster led largely by unheralded veterans has Virginia alongside top-ranked Kentucky stocked with potential one-and-done NBA players as college basketball's only undefeated teams.
Now the Cavaliers (19-0, 7-0 ACC) face the three ACC teams picked to finish ahead of them, each coached by Hall of Famers.
First up is Mike Krzyzewski and the preseason favorite Blue Devils (17-3, 4-3) in a rematch of last year's ACC tournament final. Duke is coming off Wednesday's loss at No. 8 Notre Dame then Thursday's dismissal of guard Rasheed Sulaimon after Krzyzewski said the junior had been "unable to consistently live up" to team standards.
Virginia visits No. 13 North Carolina and Roy Williams on Monday and hosts No. 10 Louisville and Rick Pitino next weekend.
"We don't need to worry about the next couple of games that are coming up," all-ACC junior guard Malcolm Brogdon said. "We have one opponent to play on Saturday and we need to worry about going in there and playing Virginia basketball from the start. ... We have to keep building on the success we've had."
The Cavaliers were ranked No. 9 this preseason despite losing seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell from a 30-win team that reached the NCAA round of 16 for the first time since 1995 as a No. 1 seed.
And as with last year, they don't win with overwhelming talent.
Rather, a team with no McDonald's All-Americans plays tough defense and tempo-controlling offense. They force opponents to defend deep into the shot clock and play together to overcome teams with more individual talent, led by a 45-year-old coach described by Krzyzewski as someone who "really understands the total game."
It's not glitzy or crowd-pleasing basketball outside of Charlottesville, anyway but effective.
"You have a bunch of good players who have played together and bought into a system and believe," said Old Dominion assistant coach Bryant Stith, Virginia's career scoring leader and father of Cavs freshman B.J. Stith. "It just goes to show the formula that worked so well for Butler and the Davidsons and all those mid-major schools ... has now translated well in the Atlantic Coast Conference."
Everything starts with defense, where the Cavaliers allow a national-low 49.1 points per game with three opponents failing to crack 30. While their offensive pace holds down that average, they also rank second nationally in field-goal percentage defense (34 percent), second in points allowed per possession and third in both rebounding and scoring margin, according to STATS.
At the other end, Virginia ranks 13th nationally in points scored per possession (1.208) while shooting 47 percent with a balanced attack posting the best averages of Bennett's 6-year tenure. And junior Justin Anderson has developed from ACC sixth man of the year to the team's top scorer (13.9 points) while shooting a league-best 52 percent on 3-pointers.
That both-ends-of-the-court efficiency has Virginia enjoying its best start since the 7-foot-4 Sampson-led Cavs went 23-0 and reached the Final Four in 1981.
The Cavaliers had missed the NCAAs in 10 of 12 seasons before Bennett's arrival from Washington State. They're trying to make the workmanlike formula that got them here carry them even farther.
"They're just such a thorough team," said Boston College coach Jim Christian, whose Eagles lost to the Cavaliers this month. "You know that you're going to have to take advantage of every opportunity they give you because there's not going to be many."
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.
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