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The stats say yes. Recent losses give pause. Is UVA the ACC's best team this year?

The stats say yes. Recent losses give pause. Is UVA the ACC's best team this year?

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia opened ACC play with seven straight wins and looked as though it might go wire to wire atop the con ference’s basketball standings. Instead, back-to-back road losses to Florida State and Duke have left the Cavaliers facing a question: Just where do they rank in the league?

With COVID-19 impacting the league’s already unbalanced schedule, determining the ACC’s best team is as muddled a task as ever.

“I think we’re getting a feel for ourselves, but honestly, I don’t know if anybody can say, ‘I’ve got a great picture. This is who we are,’” said UVA coach Tony Bennett, whose team hosts North Carolina State on Wednesday night. “We don’t think we’re too good, but we believe when we play right, we can be good.”

At 15-5 overall and 11-3 in league play, UVA remains the ACC’s highest-rated team in the NET rankings and KenPom’s team rankings. The two straight losses dropped Virginia to No. 15 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll, the second highest-ranked team in the conference behind first-place Florida State.

When the NCAA men’s basketball committee released its initial seeding rankings, it had Virginia at No. 9 overall, a No. 3 seed and the highest-rated team from the ACC. Since then, it beat North Carolina, was blown out at FSU and lost a 1-point game at Duke on Saturday.

And while the defense isn’t as suffocating as it’s been in recent years, UVA still gives up a league-low 60.3 points per game, the nation’s seventh-best mark.

So, is Virginia the league’s best team?

“Hard to say. We’ve played some good basketball,” Bennett said. “Even in the Duke game, I thought we played solid. That was a well-played game, both teams. They made some plays down the stretch.”

The Cavaliers’ highest quality wins are a 60-48 victory over North Carolina on Feb. 13, a pair of close wins over Georgia Tech and a blowout of Clemson shortly after the Tigers returned from a COVID-19 pause.

Other than an early-season upset by San Francisco, UVA’s losses have all been to quality opponents.

Virginia played No. 1 and undefeated Gonzaga on a neutral court in Fort Worth, Texas on Dec. 26, and was pummeled 98-75. In the league, it lost to Virginia Tech, Florida State and Duke, all on the road.

“Those are good teams,” Bennett said. “This year in this this league, it seems like it’s like most years but even more. It’s pretty balanced.”

Adding to the confusion over a pecking order, it’s hard to tell just how good the ACC compared to other leagues in the country. Teams have played far fewer nonconference contests this year because of the pandemic.

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner passionately insisted Monday that the conference is still the gold standard.

“I don’t understand why there’s not 10 or 11 teams being talked about to be in the NCAA tournament right now,” Pastner said. “I don’t understand why everyone’s talking about the Big Ten or the Big 12. What about the ACC? Really, 11 teams should in the NCAA tournament every single year from this league. This league is the best in the country.”

That overly glowing assessment aside, the ACC isn’t having the kind of year that would lead people to fawn over its elite standing. The league lost the annual ACC-Big Ten Challenge 7-5, with its top teams struggling in that event.

Virginia’s game against Michigan State was canceled because of COVID-19 issues within the Cavaliers’ program.

First-place Florida State needed overtime to beat Indiana 69-67 in Tallahassee, Fla., and third-place Virginia Tech was beaten by 20 at home by Penn State. Fourth-place North Carolina lost 93-80 at Iowa.

While the league figures to fall well short of placing the 10 or 11 teams Pastner would like to see in Indianapolis, Florida State, Virginia and Virginia Tech appear safely in the field, and Clemson, Louisville and North Carolina also are included in most bracketology projections.

Syracuse, Georgia Tech and Duke still have work to do.

With coronavirus-reduced schedules, it’s possible no team in the ACC will win 20 games — normally an NCAA tournament benchmark — this regular season. For his part, Bennett isn’t spending much time pondering his team’s place in the conference standings as it prepares for the final two weeks of the regular season.

After the N.C. State game, UVA hosts Miami and then plays at Louisville.

“All you can control is, you get your team as best as possible,” Bennett said. “It’s so disjointed with where you play, who you play, when you play them. On the road. Are there teams playing more games, less games, not going? So, it’s so hard to say for anybody.”

mbarber@timesdispatch.com

Twitter: @RTD_MikeBarber

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