Kyle Guy and the Cavaliers committed just five turnovers in their victory at Duke. (Rob Kinnan/USA Today Sports)
DURHAM, N.C. — What we know now, for sure, is what we might have suspected before tipoff Saturday afternoon on Cameron Indoor Stadium: There are no limits to what the men’s basketball team from Virginia can accomplish this spring. That guarantees nothing, of course, and there could be a night when a shot doesn’t fall or a call goes the wrong way. But man, watch these Cavaliers play defense as if their dinner and dessert depended on it, and it doesn’t take much to dream a bit.
The last time Virginia won at Cameron Indoor Stadium, precisely zero of the current Cavs had been born, and Coach Tony Bennett was finishing out the last of his three on-again, off-again seasons as an NBA guard. That was 1995.
And now we have this: a Virginia team that came to Duke with a better record (19-1 vs. 18-2) and a higher ranking (second vs. fourth), and still was an underdog.
Presenting Cavaliers 65, Blue Devils 63.
“As everybody will tell you,” Bennett said, “it’s one conference game in the middle part of the year.”
No, Tony. Not everyone will tell you that. I won’t tell you that. What I’ll tell you: If your team can win at this place against this team, it can win on any court against anybody — in any month, be it March or (yikes) April. Your team can be a joy to watch, too, and this was not a win at Georgia Tech or Wake Forest. This Duke team has lottery-style talent falling out of its shorts.
“My guys played their hearts out,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
And Virginia still won.
So we can, and should, chalk this up to Bennett’s coaching, because in preparation, in execution, in in-game adjustments, he is clearly a star. He has a habit, whether it’s on a made bucket or a missed shot, to point to the defensive end of the court, to make sure his team gets back.
But by this point, in his ninth season in Charlottesville, that is the Cavaliers’ way of life. It is their oxygen. In Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. and Gary Trent Jr. and Grayson Allen, the Blue Devils boast at least four players who could score 20 in a given game. Duke’s average output before facing Virginia: 91.7 points per game, best in the country.
And yet on Saturday at halftime, Duke had managed just 22 points, had committed eight turnovers, had clanked all seven of its three-pointers.
“We weren’t perfect defensively,” Bennett said, and he’s right. But that also gives you a sense of what the standards are.
About talent: Duke, by this point in the program’s arc, is the same as Kentucky. Players come for a couple semesters, then they depart for the NBA regardless of whether they hung a banner or laid an egg. Allen is a senior, but other than that, only three Duke minutes Saturday went to non-freshmen. Another similar (better?) class will roll into Cameron next year. So the expectations remain, even if the faces are rarely the same.
The Cavaliers, they hear that stuff, and they don’t disagree with the assessment of, say, Bagley’s ability. How could you, when he went for 30 points and 14 rebounds, when he leads the ACC in both scoring and rebounding?
“We’re talented, too,” Virginia senior Devon Hall said. “Just like they are.”
There’s an edge to that answer, for sure. Because the Cavaliers are so disciplined — they turned the ball over just five times Saturday — and because they are defined by defense, it’s easy to dismiss them as a product of Bennett’s system. That has to be true, to a certain extent.
But stop telling them they win because of how they’re coached, not who they are. Stop telling them they win — don’t say it — ugly.
“It definitely gets, not under our skin, but it’s annoying,” said sophomore guard Kyle Guy, who led four Cavs in double figures with 17 points, who hit a massive three-pointer with just more than three minutes to go, and who iced the game by hitting both ends of a one-and-one with six seconds left. “An ugly win is a win.”
This wasn’t one of those. In the first half, Virginia’s offense picked apart Duke’s man-to-man defense — clearly the Blue Devils’ weakness — to the point which Krzyzewski had to switch to zone for almost the entirety of the second half. For years, the Blue Devils’ signature move, when a run is rolling and Cameron is rocking, is to slap the floor — annoying an entire nation, except those in blue. The signal: Everybody guard your guy. Here comes a stop.
Saturday, after Duke had eliminated all of what had been a 13-point Virginia lead, Allen went back on defense, slapped the floor — and dropped into that zone.
“It was a good move on their part,” Bennett said of the zone.
Sure. It’s what a team full of freshmen has to do to survive. But it’s worth pointing out that at no point did Virginia have to morph its defense. Eight more Duke turnovers followed in the second half. The Cavs played their man.
“I was a freshman once,” Guy said, “and you’re not really prepared for this pressure that we put on the ball.”
So halfway through the ACC season, Virginia is 9-0 in conference with a three-game lead. But this isn’t uncharted territory. The Cavaliers were a No. 1 seed in 2014, a No. 2 in 2015, a No. 1 in 2016. Their critics will say that despite that success, Bennett’s teams have only once advanced past the Sweet 16 and have not reached the Final Four. Not yet.
“We can be as good as we want to be,” Guy said.
Bennett would second that notion. But he is, too, of the belief that such success is fragile, that a win at Duke is followed by a home game against Louisville, and couldn’t the Cavs lose that one?
But he also, clearly, likes his team. Before the season, Duke was ranked first nationally, Virginia not ranked at all. But why place limits or labels on what the Cavs can do if they keep developing like they have these last three months?
“Can we just keep that idea of our unity, our synergy, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts?” Bennett said. “I think that’s so big. Because we have really good parts. And there’s talent, and I don’t think our players sometimes get enough credit for their talent. But there is a synergy or a chemistry that when they’re right, it’s even better.”
Saturday afternoon, when Bagley scored a meaningless bucket just as the horn sounded, a Cameron crowd that had been jacked up only 10 minutes earlier melted into murmurs.
And then a funny thing happened: The Cavaliers, they didn’t stream onto the floor. They didn’t tackle each other. They didn’t have to be calmed down and regain their decorum.
No, there were some hugs and high-fives. But then the Virginia men’s basketball team fell into the handshake line and congratulated Duke on a fiery, fun game.
This is a team that knew what happened Saturday was possible. This is a team that knows the next two months are filled with even greater possibilities. Let the mind wander. There are no limits.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.