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Ratcliffe: Virginia still seeking elusive win over ranked team

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Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2014 12:15 am | Updated: 11:54 am, Fri Jan 17, 2014.

Virginia came within a hairbreadth of ending nearly 20 years of frustration at Cameron Indoor Stadium last Monday night.

Problem was, it was another “almost.”

The 12-5 Cavaliers (3-1 in the ACC) have had their chances against three ranked teams this season: VCU, Wisconsin and Duke. Made ‘em sweat but lost ‘em all.

UVa was plagued by different issues in all three. Poor free throw shooting cost the Cavs against VCU. Poor field goal shooting was the culprit against the Badgers, who lost for the first time this week against Indiana.

Duke? Defensive rebounding didn’t help, but generally speaking, the Wahoos could have won that game had Rasheed Sulaimon’s go-ahead 3-pointer been a centimeter short even though UVa had to put together a furious comeback to be in contention at the end.

If you’re a Virginia fan, the fact that your heroes are coming that close is both encouraging and disconcerting. Tony Bennett’s team has posted back-to-back 20-win (plus) seasons, a first for the Cavaliers since Jeff Jones’ best days at the helm. Wahoo boosters have to be pleased with where the program rests and about its future.

Still, this particular team needs to learn how to finish against the big dogs. They’ve handled Florida State and N.C. State on the road, Wake Forest at home. They’ve beaten mostly everyone else they were supposed to except Green Bay.

Yet, there’s this thing, kind of just stuck there in UVa’s resume. The RPI is good. The effort has been terrific (except in Knoxville). It’s just this lingering question of why can’t these Cavaliers finish off a ranked team?

Are they good enough?

Yes.

Mike Krzyzewski thinks so. He’s been a fan of Bennett for years and likes what he sees in this group of Cavaliers.

“Virginia is as well-coached as any team in the country,” Krzyzewski said Monday night after escaping with Duke’s 16th straight home win against Virginia (69-65). “They’re strong, and (Joe) Harris is a coach’s dream … he’s as good as anybody in the country. [Virginia] is as good as anybody … well, Arizona. But [Virginia] can play with anybody.”

Krzyzewski almost said that the Cavaliers were as good as any team the Blue Devils have played this season, which we assume includes Kansas, until he interrupted his thought and mentioned Arizona. Obviously, Coach K didn’t think Virginia was quite on Arizona’s level, but considering Duke has played UCLA, Michigan and Kansas, that’s some pretty high cotton.

The question is, does Virginia believe in itself as much as Krzyzewski does?

Perhaps when Bennett calls Bob Rotella to get into Akil Mitchell’s head on the matter of free throws, that the coach might, ahem, bring up the idea of talking to the team about believing it can win against a Top 25 team. Rotella, a world-famous sports psychologist, who resides in Charlottesville, doesn’t use a couch, but if he did, it would have to be a really big one.

How big was that escape for Duke?

After losing to UVa in Charlottesville last season, it wouldn’t have looked good for the Blue Devils to lose against the Cavaliers at home. It also wouldn’t have looked good to start 1-3 in the ACC, after having dropped games to Clemson and Notre Dame, both on the road.

In fact, many of the sportswriters who have observed Duke basketball for 20 or more years, saw something we considered a bit bizarre at the end of the Blue Devils’ narrow win over the Wahoos, something I don’t think I’ve seen before, at least not for a mere regular season game.

Coming off the court, Krzyzewski nearly sprinted to catch up with associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski. When he caught Wojo, Krzyzewski hugged his assistant as they celebrated while running off the court.

One scribe remarked: “What? Did they just win the national championship?”

Yeah, it was that kind of celebration.

Still, back to Virginia’s issue. Are the Cavaliers going to have to bump off one of these Top 25 teams in order to build their confidence for postseason play?

I asked Bennett that question on Wednesday, but I’m not sure he understood the question.

“Any time you can have success against good teams, it certainly helps,” Bennett said.

Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill, but I would think beating a Top 25 opponent would give a team confidence to go out and do it again, and again. That’s how the really good teams roll.

Perhaps just beating the teams the Cavaliers are favored against the remainder of the schedule is enough or even more than enough to get them in the NCAA Tournament. Probably so, and that’s not bad.

However, knowing that they can play with anybody as Krzyzewski suggested, knowing it because they have beaten ranked teams, has to have some advantages, doesn’t it?

Unless something changes, Virginia won’t get many more chances to prove it.

Only newcomers Syracuse and Pitt, along with Duke, are ranked in the Top 25. Virginia plays one game against each. The Cavs are at Pittsburgh on Groundhog day (same day as the Super Bowl), and hosts Syracuse on March 1, the final home regular season game.

A win against one of those would be a confidence booster, kind of bracing the Cavaliers for what follows.

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