CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon did a double take when told that the Cavaliers have only won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship outright once in their history, and that it was 33 years ago.
The 12th-ranked Cavaliers can notch their second today with a win against No. 4 Syracuse in the biggest game in Charlottesville in decades, probably since Ralph Sampson was a Wahoo.
“I’m not even sure the rest of the guys on my team know that,” the redshirt sophomore said when asked about the dubious championship fact. “I didn’t know that until you just said it. That would be a huge accomplishment, really be unbelievable.”
The showdown in Virginia’s arena has been sold out for several months.
“As a player, you try to block out the distractions, block out the publicity the game is getting, because I really feel like it’s not about that,” Brogdon said. “At the end of the day it’s just another basketball game. We’ve got to go in and play our game ... and impose our will from the beginning.”
The Cavaliers’ style of play features coach Tony Bennett’s trademark defense, which held Miami to an ACC-low 40 points in a victory Wednesday.
Virginia’s defense is the stingiest in the nation, allowing 54.7 points per game.
Virginia (24-5, 15-1 ACC) has won 12 straight overall, and a school-record 17 in a row at home against conference competition, but it hasn’t faced a team of the caliber of the Orange since playing host to No. 3 Duke on Feb. 28 last year.
Indeed, the Blue Devils are the only ranked team the Cavaliers have beaten during their home winning streak. Syracuse (26-2, 13-2) has lost two of three since starting the season with 25 straight wins, a streak that made Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim’s team rise to No. 1 in the Top 25.
The Orange would be helped greatly if three-point specialist Trevor Cooney returns to form. He has eight games in which he has converted at least five three-pointers but has missed 20 of 25 from behind the arc in the past four games.
“For him to be consistent from three is big for our team,” said C.J. Fair, who leads Syracuse with a 16.5-point scoring average, followed by Cooney 12.8 per contest. “It keeps the defense honest. They can’t key on one guy. It really stretches the floor for us. It takes a lot of pressure off me.”
While the star power will be on the visiting bench, the Cavaliers have kept winning by relying on everyone. Brogdon (14.8 ppg) and Joe Harris (11.8) lead them in scoring.
“I think they’re the best team in the league,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said of Virginia. “More than any team in the league, they really know who they are on both ends of the floor,” he added.
More than one coach has praised Harris, an All-ACC first team selection last season, for welcoming a reduced role, at least statistically, this season. His scoring average in ACC play is down 6.5 points from what it was a year ago, but he said reaching his final home game with stakes this high was the goal all along.
“It is a huge matchup, but I think if you look at it from a greater perspective, this is what we wanted when we got here,” Harris said. “This is something that, if we could have looked ahead when we first got here and said, ‘our fourth year, our last game is going to be for an ACC championship against a top-5 team,’ we would definitely take that and would be excited about that.”