Nations: Cavaliers look like a team on the rise

Did you see the Virginia game the other night? The one where the Cavaliers beat an honest-to-goodness “name” program in men’s basketball?

I didn’t — which isn’t exactly a rarity when it comes to U.Va. basketball. Normally, I’m just not that interested in seeing the latest disappointing incarnation of the Cavs (same goes for the Hokies, by the way). For the past few years, at least, I’ve been far more preoccupied with the so-called “mid-majors” who’ve largely dominated basketball in this season. Teams like Richmond, VCU, George Mason, Hampton — and yes, James Madison — have given neutral fans in this state a real rooting interest in the NCAA tournament that the ACC-pedigreed Cavs and Hokies simply have not in recent years. Virginia and Virginia Tech have for the most part slogged through the ACC as middling or below-average programs, with the best hope for a postseason berth starting with N and ending with T, or perhaps one of those other “showcase” tournaments I can’t remember the name of right now.

This attitude made it easy for me to take a high school game assignment Monday night, knowing full well I’d miss the Cavaliers take on mighty North Carolina. That the Tar Heels aren’t so very mighty this year isn’t lost on me, but seeing that final score — 76-61, Cavs — made me snap to attention. I wasn’t surprised that what looks to be a fairly good Virginia squad beat an apparently mediocre North Carolina team, but the ease with which the Cavaliers did so really was a bit of a shocker for a fair-weather Virginia follower like me.

There were rumblings that this might be the breakthrough season for Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s squad. The defensive-minded Cavs had their top five scorers returning from the previous season that nearly — not quite — netted the school’s second straight NCAA appearance. Bennett, entering his fifth season coaching the team, gathered enough admirers in the media to land the Cavs the No. 24 preseason national ranking in the Associated Press poll.

Virginia lost its first highly anticipated game, a 59-56 thriller to current state power VCU. No shame there, and the Cavs regrouped to rattle off six straight wins before back-to-back blips against Wisconsin and Green Bay. Still, no cause for serious alarm — even great teams have their peaks and valleys.

Then I saw this score — Tennessee 87, Virginia 52 — and tuned out the Cavs for another season. That lopsided beatdown by what traditionally has been a decent program in a top-heavy SEC had to shake the faith of most Virginia fans, but maybe it was just the kick in the pants Bennett’s team needed to dive into conference play in the right frame of mind. Virginia is off to a 5-1 start in ACC play, and none of those wins have been particularly close. The Cavs beat Florida State by 12 points just five days after the humiliating loss to Tennessee, then thumped visiting Wake Forest by 23 and hitting the road to rout North Carolina State by 21 (76-45) on Jan. 11.

Virginia earned itself another prime-time matchup, and again came up just short in a 69-65 loss to Duke. The Seminoles again proved a tonic, as Virginia picked up a 12-point win against Florida State before dispatching the Tar Heels on Monday night.

Sporting a relatively youthful roster including impressive freshman point guard London Perrantes with a few veterans like senior guard Joe Harris sprinkled in, the Cavaliers have all the appearance of a team built to win now and positioned to do so for the next few years. That, of course, is just the way Bennett drew it up in building the program back to this level. Whether or not Virginia can take the next step from top-25 contender to national threat remains to be seen, but Bennett’s Cavaliers don’t look like a team eager to slide back into mediocrity.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>