The ACC’s last unbeaten team fell not with the bang of a last-second shot or the whine of a shot-clock buzzer –— which, in all honesty, Virginia fans would probably prefer, given the choice. Houston took all the drama out of the final few minutes, sending the home fans to the exits and the Cavaliers into the conference season with record finally blemished.
That said as much about how good Houston is as it did anything about Virginia. Everything the Cavaliers are good at, year after year, the Cougars were better at Saturday: Tougher, rangier, more cohesive, more resilient. The game turned on one play with a little more than three minutes to go, when the Cavaliers were trying to rally from a double-digit deficit, and the building started to believe that they could.
Jamal Shead took a dribble handoff at the free throw line, cut down the right side of the lane and … that was it. He found no opposition on his way to the rim, nor did Houston find any opposition the rest of the way to a 69-61 win. That’s exactly what Virginia does to people on offense and the kind of complete breakdown that so rarely happens to Virginia on defense.
“What a wonderful atmosphere,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “The crowd was great. Our young men played hard. That was always going to be there. But the tougher, sounder team on the defensive end won the game.”
Still, as Virginia heads into ACC play Tuesday at Miami, the Cavaliers won’t see an opponent quite like this until the postseason. Duke may have more skill, and North Carolina more depth, but neither is the finely tuned, balanced unit Houston is right now, swarming on defense, opportunistic on offense. From Houston’s campus to NRG Stadium, site of the Final Four in April, it’s a mere 18 minutes, no traffic.
Houston won its home half of this series handily last year, one of the Cavaliers’ many dispiriting losses to start a subpar season, but by any metric these are two of the 10 best teams in the country this year, both only a few years removed from a Final Four appearance — Kihei Clark, now in his 14th season as Virginia’s point guard, remains the ageless link between the 2019 national title and now — and both making strong cases to return.
Which means it is yet another season when Duke and Carolina got all the attention, only for Virginia to emerge as the team to beat by Christmas, although in this case that’s more about Virginia bouncing back from last year’s lackluster campaign to return to its usual standards than it is UNC or Duke, both of which will surely be up there at the end.
That wasn’t entirely unexpected — the Cavaliers were the consensus preseason pick to finish third in the ACC, so it’s not like they came out of nowhere — but in a year when the rest of the ACC once again hasn’t found itself on the steadiest footing to start, Virginia is no longer a huge part of the problem but may in fact be the solution.
Which made Saturday a big test not only for the Cavaliers but for the ACC at large, because these are the teams by which everyone will be measured in March. The ACC’s best wins, collectively, at the moment, are Virginia over Baylor (in Las Vegas) and Duke (at home) and UNC (in New York) over Ohio State. None of those really dazzles. The league needed this one and didn’t get it.
Still, there’s reason to rejoice it was played at all. On a Saturday afternoon full of eminently watchable college basketball, in that narrow window between Thanksgiving and exams and the big bowl games when the sport actually has a big chunk of the national stage to itself for the last time until March, this stood out as an old-fashioned nonconference test in front of a partisan crowd, the kind that’s increasingly rare these days.
This wasn’t part of an island tournament or made-for-television event in an empty NBA building or neutral-site cash grab, but the second leg of a home-and-home between two elite programs that aren’t afraid to go on the road (in Houston’s case, to be fair, not entirely by choice). North Carolina used to do that with Kentucky. Duke will do it — for the first time in more than two decades — over the next two seasons against Arizona.
It may be hard on coaches, but it’s good for the game. Twenty-five-odd years ago, when Duke and Michigan played in December, the world stopped to watch. Times have certainly changed since then — only the NFL can capture an audience like that now — but games like this may be the medicine college basketball refuses to take for what ails it.
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