College Basketball: Virginia remains unbeaten behind the sweet science of defense

It is hard to make the Notre Dame and Virginia offenses look bad. No one had been able to do so prior to Saturday. However, the proverbial rock met the hard place when the two squared off in South Bend.

Coming into the game, Notre Dame was leading the nation in offensive efficiency while Virginia was seventh. It is safe to say that these numbers were altered slightly following the grinding contest.

What makes each team a national power is that the Cavaliers and Irish field squads full of lockdown defenders. Heading into Saturday, Virginia trailed only Kentucky in points allowed per game in the country, allowing 50.8 per game. Notre Dame was 82nd, but that is quite deceiving, as the Irish were allowing only 62.4 points per game. That goes down to 60.2 at home.

The point is this: It is hard to call a game pretty when each team shoots in the 30 percent range much of the evening, but the battle on Saturday certainly was a work of art. Why? Both teams are able to defend cleanly. The bonus was not reached in the game until just outside the final minute. Just over 30 minutes in, the game was tied at 39 after Notre Dame’s leading scorer Jerian Grant scored his first two points of the game. Virginia came into the game with two clear motivations: keep Grant from scoring and keep the Irish from scoring in the paint. Both were accomplished, as Grant only got eight shots for the game and scored only six points. While the Irish shot 10-24 from 3-point range, they shot only 10-35 inside the arc.

The defensive job by Tony Bennett’s squad could be likened to the way in which a surgeon utilizes a scalpel, part of the reason why this grinder was nevertheless a high-level display of basketball. The game plan went just as devised for the Cavaliers, and Virginia picked up its 15th win on the season and remained as one of three undefeated teams.

Despite its offensive struggles early, Virginia picked it up in the final 10 minutes to shoot nearly 50 percent from the floor for the game. Meanwhile, the Hoos committed only eight turnovers.

The consistently strong defense and a diverse offensive attack with three starters – Justin Anderson, Anthony Gill, and Malcolm Brogdon – averaging at least 13 points per game is what has the Cavaliers exactly where they belong in the top three. These core contributors have Virginia primed to make a run even farther than last year’s Sweet 16… maybe even eyeing one of the quartet in Indianapolis at the end of March.

Ironically, the Irish have some of the exact same tools as Virginia. The two teams are nearly mirrors of each other. The Irish weren’t shrinking violets on defense by any stretch, as Virginia endured several different scoring droughts during the game. Notre Dame has produced three 14-plus-per-game scorers of its own with Grant, Demetruis Jackson, and Pat Connaughton.

While the eye test for the Irish has them (likely) not standing past the Sweet 16 in the tournament, they are a strong team that figures to be a tough out. They also have all of the tools in the back court and on the wings to get hot and make a run, just as UConn did last year.

Between this battle in South Bend and the game between Louisville and North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the depth that makes the ACC the toughest conference in America was clearly on display Saturday. This is without even mentioning fellow unbeaten Duke, which the Cavaliers will battle on Jan. 31. With all of this quality, it is not a stretch to see a pair of teams from the ACC in the Elite Eight or even the Final Four.