Beyond the Scoreboard: Has Virginia become ACC’s best basketball program?

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett holds up the net after defeating North Carolina in the championship game of the NCAA Atlantic Coast Conference men's college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 10, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

It seems almost blasphemous to write this in a state and a league that Duke and North Carolina have dominated for decades, but the numbers insist it is nevertheless the truth – Virginia has become the top basketball program in the ACC.

Over the past five years, the Cavaliers have produced ample evidence that they stand alone at the apex of the league.

Coach Tony Bennett’s 73-17 record in ACC regular-season play in five seasons is 10 games better than the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, both of whom are 63-27 in that span.

The Cavs have won three regular-season titles and two ACC Tournaments in that time period, including this season, which ranks among the most dominant in league history.

The 2017-18 squad that received the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is the first in the history of the league to win 20 games against ACC opponents – 17-1 in the regular season and three ACC tourney victories.

While the career achievements of both Duke and North Carolina dwarf those of Virginia, the Cavaliers have proven to be more than a Florida State or a Miami that can occasionally muster that one great season as the ACC’s best team.

The Tar Heels have won 31 regular-season titles and 19 ACC tournaments, while Duke has 20 ACC tourney titles and 19 regular-season crowns. Virginia (eight regular-season, three tourney championships) can’t come close, but that’s history, and this is now.

While the regular-season lead of 10 games over five years is impressive, where the Cavaliers come up lacking is NCAA tourney play.

While the Tar Heels have reached two straight NCAA title games and won it all last year, and Duke claimed a championship as recently as 2015, Virginia is just 7-4 in its last four seasons.

The Cavaliers have lost in the second round twice, once in the third round and reached the Elite Eight in 2016. No Final Four appearances under Bennett and a history of underachieving after playing so well in the regular season is a blight on an otherwise sterling set of numbers.

So maybe the moniker attached to the Cavaliers is the best ACC regular-season team over five seasons. The program needs more postseason success – another staple of the Duke-Carolina greatness over decades – to be included in the ACC’s top tier.

Either way, what Bennett has done without the benefit of the top-ranked recruits in the country is very impressive. Not since Gary Williams’ Maryland teams of the early 2000s has an ACC program threatened the league dominance of the two Tobacco Road dynasties.

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