Virginia clambers back into ACC elite

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The talk of the ACC this season has been about the three-team race for the top developing among newcomers Pitt and Syracuse and old guard powerhouse Duke.

Quietly, however, there is a fourth team that has forged its way into the discussion and was ahead of the Panthers and Blue Devils in the standings going into the weekend.

The Virginia Cavaliers were picked to be one of the top teams in the conference but faded into the background after a 9-4 non-conference record that included a 35-point blowout to Tennessee, a loss to Green Bay and a loss to Wisconsin in which they scored only 38 points.

But since conference play started, things have changed dramatically for the Cavaliers. They have won 7 of 8 games, including a sweep of Florida State, a win at Notre Dame and a victory against North Carolina.

Today, Virginia can really stake its claim as one of the ACC bests in a Super Bowl matinee against Pitt (18-3, 6-2) at the Petersen Events Center.

Virginia (16-5, 7-1) is off to its best conference start since 1982-83 when Ralph Sampson was a senior. Unlike that team, this one isn't built around a future first overall NBA pick.

The Cavaliers are similar to the Panthers in that the sum is probably better than the individual parts. They play a deliberate style on offense, value possessions and rarely commit turnovers. Virginia averages 67 points per game and has only two players -- Malcolm Brogdon (11.6 points per game) and Joe Harris (11.5) -- averaging in double figures.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said his team needs to be patient, too, something the Panthers didn't do earlier this season in a 44-43 loss to Cincinnati, in which the Bearcats played at a very deliberate pace.

"They are playing their best basketball right now," Dixon said of the Cavaliers. "I think we have grown since earlier in the year when Cincinnati was patient against us. We are a better team now than we were back then.

"So I think we are more prepared for that, you would hope, and we understand it."

The pedigree of Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett gives plenty of insight as to why Virginia prizes offensive efficiency and assist-to-turnover ratio. He is the son of former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett, a Pittsburgh native, who led the Badgers to the 1999-2000 Final Four and became known for building a disciplined system with smart players who excelled at passing and playing as a team.

Bennett, the son, played point guard for his dad at Wisconsin-Green Bay and holds the NCAA record for career 3-point field goal percentage (49.7, minimum of 200 attempts). He also played three years in the NBA for the Charlotte Hornets.

"They have a lot of experience and they are very well-coached," Dixon said. "They are very good defensively, a lot of the same fundamentals we have defensively. There are a lot of similarities and they are playing really well, so we are anxious to get out there and go after it."

The Cavaliers are on a four-game winning streak and are coming off a 68-53 win at Notre Dame. Brogdon had a big game, a stat-sheet filling one that likely made his coach smile -- 16 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 steals.

The most recent loss for both teams was to Duke, but the circumstances were much different.

Pitt lost to Duke, 80-65, and the Panthers were not really in the game for the final 10 minutes. . Virginia, on the other hand, lost a heartbreaker Jan. 13 at Duke, 69-65, as the Blue Devils got a big 3-pointer from Rasheed Sulaimon with less than a minute to play to take a late lead.

Dixon, though, said that the two games aren't relevant to today's game.

"We will look at all their films so it won't just be one game," Dixon said.

"Their game with Duke was a couple weeks ago and it is a loss. You can't focus on one game because in one game guys are completely different to the next game.

Whether they make a shot early or miss a shot early, it always has an impact. A foul here, a foul there changes games too, as well.

"You just come out and battle every play and do the best you can but try to have those constants, defending and rebounding."


Scouting report

Matchup: Pitt (18-3, 6-2 ACC) vs Virginia (16-5, 7-1), 12:30 p.m. today, Petersen Events Center.

TV, radio: ESPNU; KDKA-FM (93.7)

Pitt: Coming off 80-65 loss to Duke. ... Averaging 75.8 points per game. ... Has 67 blocked shots. ... Three players average double figures in scoring, led by Lamar Patterson (17.7).

Virginia: Is 7-3 all-time vs. Pitt. ... Most recent game in the series was played December 1990. ... Cavaliers have won four in a row. ... Most recent loss was at Duke, 69-65, Jan. 13. ... Leading scorer is Malcolm Brogdon (11.6 ppg).

Hidden stat: Pitt is plus-8.5 in rebounding margin.

Paul Zeise:, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.

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