RALEIGH — Tony Bennett does not hate the ACC.
His Virginia team has just played like it does at times this season, including for about 30 minutes on Friday night in the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t dislike the ACC at all,” Bennett clarified on Saturday.
The way the No. 1-seeded Cavaliers have pummeled ACC competition this season, while struggling outside the league, there’s more legitimacy to that concept than you might think.
Bennett and Virginia (29-6) will get another chance to show their love for the ACC on Sunday against eighth-seeded Memphis (24-9) for a spot in the Round of 16 in the East Regional.
The ACC champions were outstanding in league play this season, no question about that. The Wahoos didn’t just go 16-2, to win the regular-season title, they won 12 conference games by double-digits and by an average margin of victory of 13.8 points per game.
Bennett’s fifth team then swept through Florida State, Pittsburgh and Duke in Greensboro last week for the school’s first ACC title since 1976.
But outside the league? It has been a different story. The Cavaliers had twice as many losses (13-4) and went 0-3 against three top-50 RPI teams (Wisconsin, VCU and Tennessee).
Throw in a road loss to Wisconsin-Green Bay for good measure and the Cavaliers’ nonconference resume wasn’t exactly what the ACC had in mind when it printed up “The Best Gets Better” as its conference slogan with the addition of Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh this season.
“We’ve improved from those out-of-conference games,” Bennett said. “We’ve become a better team because we’ve learned some lessons well and gotten better.”
Even on Friday night at PNC Arena, the Cavaliers at least flirted with becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in NCAA tournament history. Coastal Carolina led by as many as 10 points in the first half, by five at the half and the score was tied at 47 with 8 minutes, 52 seconds to go.
Any declarative statements about Virginia’s worthiness of a No. 1 seed were put on hold as the Cavaliers went into survival mode. Forward Anthony Gill (17 points) and reserve Evan Nolte (eight points in 11 minutes) made sure the Wahoos avoided the wrong side of history as they pulled away for a 70-59 win over the Chanticleers.
“We didn’t play well in the first half, but in the second half we execute the way we should have and we played defense,” Gill said.
‘Humbled’ by Dec. loss
There was a similar learning process for UVa outside the league, Gill said. All of those nonconference losses came early before Virginia realized how it needed to play.
An 87-52 loss at Tennessee on Dec. 30 was a turning point, Gill, a transfer from South Carolina, said.
“We were humbled by the Tennessee game,” Gill said. “We really got back to what we really need to do and that’s play defense and play as a unit.”
Virginia, which has the top scoring defense in the country, giving up only 55.4 points per game, hasn’t allowed anyone to crack the 70-point mark in regulation since the Tennessee loss. Seven times in ACC play the Cavs kept their opponent in the 40s.
“We did play really good in the ACC but I don’t think it has anything to do with the ACC,” said Gill, who’s from High Point.
Virginia senior Akil Mitchell, who’s from Charlotte, kind of chuckled when asked if the Cavaliers don’t like the ACC. He said it really comes down to matchups.
“I like the ACC,” Mitchell said. “Once you learn how to play a certain team, you get more comfortable. There’s no real trend there.”