Teel Time: Early loss to VCU aside, Virginia has look of state's basketball best

VCU has been the state’s premier college basketball team each of the last three years, and with a 5-0 record versus the commonwealth this season, the Rams’ case for 2014 supremacy would seem as compelling as their rock-the-joint band, The Peppas.

But early-season home loss to VCU notwithstanding, Virginia is playing the state’s best hoops.

Not to remotely suggest that such bragging rights matter much to Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett or Rams counterpart Shaka Smart. Their jobs are to navigate their respective conferences, the ACC and Atlantic 10, and prepare their teams for what could be a very memorable March — dare I say April? — within our borders.

Smart and VCU know the routine. They reached the 2011 Final Four and sustained that remarkable run with NCAA tournament victories in ’12 and ’13. Should the Rams advance this season, they’d join the 1981-84 Cavaliers as the only state programs to win games in four consecutive NCAAs.

Virginia hasn’t advanced in the tournament since 2007, losing to Florida two years ago in its lone appearance under Bennett. But this is the deepest and most skilled of Bennett’s five teams in Charlottesville, as recent road victories over Notre Dame and Pittsburgh attest.

Indeed, both Virginia and VCU are on impressive runs, making the question of the state’s top team entertaining for fans and keyboard jockeys.

The Cavaliers (17-5, 8-1 ACC) have won five straight, and eight of their last nine. Their sole defeat in that stretch: at Duke by four points.

The Rams (18-4, 6-1 A-10) also have won five in a row, and 10 of their last 11. Their only defeat since mid-December: at George Washington by 10.

I’ve seen Virginia six times in-person, VCU three, including the Rams’ 59-56 victory at John Paul Jones Arena on Nov. 12. Given the timing — it was the season’s second game for both — and respective defenses, the contest was predictably raw.

The Cavaliers committed a season-high 19 turnovers and were 1-of-8 from beyond the 3-point arc and 19-of-33 from the foul line. The more experienced Rams overcame 6-of-15 free-throw shooting and prevailed on Treveon Graham’s late 3-pointer.

Both teams have progressed markedly since, Virginia more so, I believe, with the growth of guards London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon.

A freshman and redshirt sophomore, respectively, Perrantes and Brogdon combined for three assists and eight turnovers (four each) against VCU. In nine ACC games, they have 66 assists and 19 turnovers.

Against the Rams, Perrantes was playing his second college game, Brogdon his second since a left foot injury ended his rookie season in February 2012. Brogdon scored in double-figures just five times in 28 outings as a freshman, but now he’s the Cavaliers’ most consistent producer.

In Sunday’s 48-45 win at Pitt, Brogdon made the winning 3-pointer with less than a second remaining and scored a game-high 16 points. He has scored at least 11 points in all nine ACC games, and either 16, 17 or 18 the last six games. As impressive for a guard, he’s made 51-of-100 shots in league games, which even my rudimentary math skills can calculate to 51 percent.

“He showed some flashes of this as a freshman,” Bennett said Monday on the ACC’s media call.

With Brogdon shedding rust and Perrantes earning a starting role alongside, Virginia’s offense strikes me as a notch above VCU’s, the Rams’ six double-figure scorers in Saturday’s win over Richmond certainly noted.

VCU and Virginia began the season Nos. 14 and 24, respectively, in the Associated Press’ top 25. Both dropped out, with the Cavaliers returning Monday after an 11-week absence at No. 20. The Rams this week are 28th, third among teams also receiving votes.

“I’ve been pleased with how they’ve responded since the ACC season has started,” Bennett said of his players.

VCU has defeated Virginia, Old Dominion, Virginia Tech, George Mason and Richmond, all except the Cavaliers by more than 10 points. Virginia’s in-state conquests are James Madison, Liberty, Hampton, Norfolk State and Virginia Tech, all by at least 10.

Were Virginia and VCU to clash on a neutral floor this week, I’d favor the Cavaliers by the slimmest of margins. Perhaps the NCAA tournament selection committee will remove the guesswork and bracket them for a March rematch.

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