The common thread with championship-caliber teams is that they are all tested at some point, whether it’s overcoming a deficit during an elimination game or overcoming an injury or two. Even the last unbeaten college basketball team, the 32-0 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, had to overcome a 6 point halftime deficit to Michigan in the championship game. Earlier in the ‘76 tournament, Indiana had in fact trailed Alabama, 69-68, with just over two minutes remaining. No matter the adversity or the hostile environment, resilient teams always have the wherewithal, the maturity, and the championship mettle to come through. And make no mistake, Virginia is being tested at the moment with losses to Justin Anderson and now London Perrantes after a scary on-court head collision with Malcolm Brogdon during the Florida State game. The Silver Lining to all of this is that, should Virginia manage to have both Anderson and Perrantes back at full-strength in time for the ACC and, more importantly, NCAA tournaments, they will be a tough team to beat. This is a mature team. Their pack line defense has thus far carried the team through this tough, injury depleted stretch, covering up for the missing offensive firepower from Anderson and now the steady floor leadership from Perrantes. The bottom line is that championships are not easy. They are hard. Kentucky, as good as they are, (and they are really good), has not been tested. Their time will come.
I don’t know about you but I’m tired of the cold and the ice and the crunch of snow beneath my cold feet. Remarkably, I’ve managed to hold onto my scarves, hat, and gloves this winter without a single loss. On that note, Kentucky will not lose its first game either this evening against my Alma mater, Auburn, at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats seem intent on cruising and, scary as this sounds, getting better game-by-game.
Virginia’s identity remains clear at this point: their stifling, pack line defense will carry the day for the remainder of their season. It is truly who they are and if they win games 50-46, so be it and good. It’s often said that defense wins championships, particularly in football, and that’s true, but in college basketball you need a shooter or two who can hit 3’s. The guess is here is that the Cavaliers will continue to ride their defense on cruise control from here on out while, more importantly, getting Justin Anderson ready to come back in March because they’ll need him for tournament play. He’s their best 3 point shooter.
Stay warm, avoid icy spots this weekend, and immerse yourselves in those ESPN shots from various spring training sites with lush green grass, gentle breezes, and warm Florida sunshine! I’m sure Bostonians will.
Virginia had a tough but impressive road win this past Wednesday against N.C. State in Raleigh, 51-47. These are the kind of gut-it-out games on the road that prove championship-caliber teams are greater than their parts. The challenge for Virginia now as they enter the soft part of their ACC schedule (beginning today at home against Wake Forest) is to remain focused and work hard while Justin Anderson’s recuperates from his fractured finger. Anderson himself will need to stay engaged with the team during games and, more importantly during practices while training hard to retain his conditioning and timing. Unbeaten Kentucky meanwhile continues to flirt with its first loss, coming within a 3 pointer of losing last Tuesday against LSU. There’s not a game remaining on their schedule that the top-ranked ‘Cats should lose. Still, the thinking here is that a loss before the SEC and NCAA tournaments in March wouldn’t be the worst thing for the young, talented team. Remaining regular season games against Arkansas and Georgia offer the best chance for a loss. Enjoy your college basketball viewing during a cold President’s day weekend in February!
Coach Rick Pitino and the 9th ranked Louisville Cardinals will make their first ACC trip to Charlottesville this evening for their match-up against the 3rd ranked Cavaliers. This should be a fun game to watch with the suave, high profile Pitino. Louisville likes to play an all-court, full-court press style of play while feeding the ball into physical presence Montrezl Harrell down low in the post. Virginia, if they can handle Louisville’s press, and I think they can, could get easy baskets in transition off the press (think Justin Anderson hanging-on- the- rim- kind-of-dunks). Still, Louisville is clearly an established program with a Hall of Fame coach and the championship pedigree to prove it. Virginia, the newcomer to the national block, must stay disciplined, play their game, and stay hungry, one possession, one defensive stop at a time. Until Virginia proves they can win championships, they are the challenger.
The No.1 Kentucky Wildcats, 22-0, will play later tonight in Gainesville, Florida, against Pitino protégé Billy Donovan and the struggling Florida Gators. Kentucky should win, but never say never playing on the road in a hostile environment against a traditional rival.
Speaking of the Louisville/Virginia match-up, this writer had the opportunity to watch several of tonight’s players up-close back in the April 2012 Capital Classic All-Star basketball at T.C. Williams high school. That would be UVA players Justin Anderson, Mike Tobey, and Evan Nolte, and Louisville star Montrezl Harrell (who was clearly the most dominating player during that game).
Virginia should win its game tonight against Duke in college basketball’s marquee match-up this weekend. With a week to practice after last Sunday’s closer than expected game against Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers should be rested and ready. The real test will come Monday night in Chapel Hill against the No. 13 ranked North Carolina Tar Heels. Looking ahead, Virginia would be wise to not get too emotionally high for today’s game against the Blue Devils. If they play their game, they’ll win. As for the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats, they should remain unbeaten after their game against Alabama tonight at Rupp Arena. The more interesting match-up for the Wildcats will be Tuesday night when they play the improving Georgia Bulldogs. At 14-5, Georgia has played opponents tough this season, particularly during their losses. They are no easy out. This is the state of the unbeaten teams as we enter Super Bowl weekend.
No. 2 Virginia faced a tougher than expected challenge this past Sunday down in southwest Virginia, narrowly escaping the rebuilding Virginia Tech Hokies, 50-47, in a game that nearly went to overtime. Still, bitter in-state rivalries often serve a useful purpose for a contending team: toughening them up for the next test and, more importantly, reminding them that you’d better take care of your backyard neighbor before venturing out into greener pastures. Which brings us to this Saturday’s marquee game against Duke in Charlottesville. If Virginia’s smart, their humbling experience in Blacksburg will set up an intense, rigorous week of practice under Coach Tony Bennett who will not need to remind them about “drinking the Kool-aid,” which he most certainly would’ve done had Virginia won easily against Virginia Tech. The guess here is that Virginia should win easily against the Blue Devils this Super Bowl weekend who will be coming off a tough road trip to South Bend on Thursday night against another top-ten team in Notre Dame. As for the unbeaten Kentucky Wildcats, they continue to cruise, and so much for this writer’s prediction of a possible upset loss to South Carolina last weekend!
The Unbeatens – January 24, 2015
Kentucky, 18-0, could be facing a trap game this afternoon in Columbia, South Carolina, against the capable Gamecocks. Coming of a closer-than-expected home game against Vanderbilt on Tuesday night, the young, incredibly talented Wildcats, still appear vulnerable to a first loss. Virginia meanwhile continues to just flat out impress. The Cavaliers and their suffocating defense shut down Georgia Tech on Thursday night in Charlottesville, 57-28. It’s not that the win against the struggling Yellow Jackets was unexpected. It’s the eye popping, who-are-these-guys?, score, holding an opponent to just 28 points that really gets your attention. Virginia should have an easy trip down Interstate 81 to Blacksburg on Sunday against the rebuilding Hokies of Virginia Tech.
After this weekend, don’t be surprised if there’s one unbeaten team left and that would be Virginia. The quest for perfection and Indiana’s perfect 32-0 season remains elusive, however, but if there’s one team out there to watch right now, yes, it’s Virginia.
By the way, while writing this blog, I continue to look back at the team photograph of the 1976 Hoosiers on their home court at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana. Wow, talk about intimidating. Scott May and Kent Benson, both sitting in the front row, hands on their knees, have that confident look that serves notice to any future team who dares challenge their throne of perfection.