Getting big home wins in January against North Carolina and N.C. State were steps in the right direction for a Virginia program hoping to get back to the NCAA tournament for a second straight season, but one fact remains.
Beating No. 3 Duke (24-3 overall, 11-3 ACC) on Thursday night in Charlottesville would give U.Va. something it still could use — a win against an elite team that would undeniably draw some positive attention from the NCAA tournament committee.
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John Paul Jones Arena, 295 Massie Road, Charlottesville, VA 22903
"I think we do," said U.Va. guard Jontel Evans, a Bethel High graduate, when asked Sunday if he thought the Cavaliers needed another impressive win to establish themselves as a legitimate contender to reach the NCAA tournament. "Thursday would be a great one to have to end the season."
U.Va. (19-8, 9-5), which as of Wednesday evening was 71st in Ratings Percentage Index projections, missed recent opportunities on the road to notch what would've been critical victories. On Feb. 16, U.Va. lost 93-81 at UNC, which is 23rd in RPI. On Feb. 19, U.Va. came up short 54-50 against then-No. 2 Miami, which also is second in RPI.
Why would a win against Duke represent a potential Holy Grail for U.Va.'s NCAA tournament hopes? Duke is first in RPI.
U.Va.'s best wins came in John Paul Jones Arena against UNC and N.C. State, which is 24th in RPI. When compared against a sampling of 15 other programs from major conferences that are considered NCAA tournament "bubble teams," U.Va.'s most impressive victories aren't as compelling as 11 of the other teams' best wins.
In the ACC, UNC has a home win against Nevada-Las Vegas (16th in RPI). Maryland logged a home victory Feb. 16 against Duke. Of course, U.Va. plays Maryland on March 10 in Charlottesville in the regular-season finale, and the Cavaliers have a chance to sweep the Terrapins in two games.
In the Big East, Cincinnati (50th in RPI) had its best win at home against Marquette (14th in RPI), Villanova (55th in RPI) boasts big wins at home against Louisville (seventh in RPI), Syracuse (12th in RPI) and Marquette and St. John's (62nd in RPI) logged its top win at home against Connecticut (30th in RPI).
In the Big Ten, Illinois (33rd in RPI) has a strong resume with wins at home against Indiana (eight in RPI) and Ohio State (20th in RPI), and on the road against Gonzaga (10th in RPI) and Minnesota (15th in RPI).
In the Big 12, Iowa State (54th in RPI) has wins at home against Oklahoma (19th in RPI) and Kansas State (21st in RPI). Baylor (62nd in RPI) recorded its best win came at home against Oklahoma State (26th in RPI).
The most attractive wins for Southeastern Conference bubble teams Kentucky (46th in RPI) and Mississippi (57th in RPI) came at home against Missouri (42nd in RPI), while fellow SEC bubble team Alabama (63rd in RPI) had best win at home against Kentucky.
Tennessee (53rd in RPI) and Arkansas (82nd in RPI), which are a couple more SEC bubble teams, both claim home victories against Florida (fifth in RPI). Arkansas also has a home win against Oklahoma (19th in RPI).
Of course, all those numbers don't even factor in bubble teams from mid-major conferences that have eye-catching victories.
A win against Duke by U.Va. would trump all of those big wins by teams from other conferences. Duke is rolling as it enters John Paul Jones Arena, where U.Va. is 16-1 this season and has won an arena-record 15 consecutive games.
"They're just a good basketball team," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski of U.Va. "(U.Va. guard Joe) Harris is really one of the better players in the country. He's a warrior. He reminds me of (former Duke forward Kyle) Singler as far as their toughness."
Despite missing starting forward Ryan Kelly due to a right foot injury for the last 12 games, Duke has won eight of its last nine games. Forward Mason Plumlee (17.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game) and guard Seth Curry (16.8 points per game) are playing like first team All-ACC picks. Freshman guard Rasheed Sulaimon is averaging 18.3 points per game in his last four contests.
"Coach K's got some of those young guys playing very well, and that is adding, without Ryan," said U.Va. coach Tony Bennett, whose team has lost eight straight games against Duke. "I don't know when he's expected back, but they've done a very nice job of getting the young guys experience."