Virginia ranks second nationally in scoring defense, is tied for third with Duke in the ACC and has won three consecutive games. Such credentials usually translate to NCAA tournament bid contention.
But the Cavaliers face a long, improbable slog if they’re to make the field for a second straight year.
The culprits are a weak non-conference schedule and, the absence of injured point guard Jontel Evans notwithstanding, resume-blotting losses to Delaware and Old Dominion.
Virginia (14-5, 4-2 ACC) is No. 114 in the latest Rating Percentage Index (RPI) posted on CBSSports.com. That’s not close to the top 60 threshold that usually defines contenders for at-large NCAA consideration, and surging 50-60 places in the final seven weeks of the regular season is rare.
The selection committee has chosen some teams in the 70s and 80s, and bypassed some in the 30s and 40s. But those sitting outside the top 60 face steep odds.
Making matters more difficult for the Cavaliers is the ACC’s lack of top-50 squads. Virginia has only four regular-season games remaining against current top-50s, starting Tuesday at home against No. 15 North Carolina State.
The others are at No. 36 North Carolina, at No. 3 and first-place Miami and home against No. 1 Duke.
Virginia is 2-0 against the top 50, with wins over North Carolina and Wisconsin. Moreover, with conquests of Florida State and Tennessee, the Cavaliers are 4-0 against the top 100.
And there’s the problem. Only four of Virginia’s 19 games have been against the top 100. Worse, the Cavaliers have played seven teams below 200, and their non-conference strength-of-schedule is 334th among 347 Division I teams.
Compounding the issue: losses to No. 187 Delaware at home and No. 323 Old Dominion in Richmond. Yes, Evans missed those games with a foot injury. No, that’s not a viable excuse.
The Delaware defeat was doubly damaging since it dumped Virginia into a consolation bracket of the NIT Season Tip-Off, sentencing it to subsequent games against No. 256 North Texas and No. 321 Lamar. Had the Cavaliers won, they would have advanced to New York with probable games versus No. 37 Kansas State and No. 52 Pittsburgh.
Losses to K-State and/or Pitt would have been well worth the trade off: an immeasurable bump in non-conference schedule strength.
With freshmen Mike Tobey, Justin Anderson and Evan Nolte emerging, Virginia is playing its best basketball. In their most recent victories, over Virginia Tech and Boston College, the Cavaliers shot 51 and 56.3 percent, respectively, the first time since 2005, against Clemson and Tech, that they’ve been above 50 in consecutive ACC games.
Starting Tuesday against N.C. State (16-4, 5-2), Virginia has to be as good against top-shelf competition. With veterans C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell, Lorenzo Brown and Scott Wood meshing with freshmen T.J. Warren and Rodney Purvis, the Wolfpack more than fit the bill.
N.C. State defeated North Carolina on Saturday 91-83. None of the Cavaliers’ six ACC opponents has broken 60, making for a compelling matchup at John Paul Jones Arena.
By the way, the Wolfpack is evidence that Virginia’s challenge is not impossible.
On this date in 2005, N.C. State was 105th on the RPI. Come Selection Sunday, the Wolfpack, despite a No. 268 non-conference strength-of-schedule, was 63rd with a 19-13 record, 7-9 in the ACC, and drew a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament.
State promptly upset Charlotte and Connecticut before falling to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16.
Virginia will need a far better ACC record than two games under .500. Several marquee victories and a 12-6 or 11-7 league mark are likely the minimum.
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