Virginia beats North Carolina and is in the national conversation -- again

Virginia hands UNC second straight loss (0:47)

No. 8 Virginia improves to 14-1 with a 61-49 victory over No. 12 North Carolina. (0:47)

Virginia is officially a thing again.

The Cavaliers were ranked No. 8 in the AP poll and No. 15 in the latest ESPN Power Rankings -- and that was before Virginia did what it did on Saturday.

Tony Bennett’s team took down North Carolina 61-49, rarely being threatened in the second half and holding the Tar Heels to 29.6 percent shooting from the field.

This victory comes on the heels of Virginia absolutely trouncing in-state opponent Virginia Tech on Wednesday, beating the Hokies by 26 in Blacksburg. The lead was 30-plus at times in the second half.

Coming into the week, we had a feeling Virginia was very good. The Cavaliers were No. 4 in the BPI and No. 3 at KenPom, but their metrics are always impressive. Even last year, when Virginia lost 11 games, it finished No. 12 at KenPom. So there was still some doubt. The lone Top 25 opponent the Cavaliers had played this season was West Virginia, and the Mountaineers won that one by seven. Their best win was over an E.C. Matthews-less Rhode Island team in Brooklyn.

If you still had questions, it would be understandable.

Not anymore.

Blowing out a Virginia Tech team on the road that hadn’t lost at home all season, and then completely stifling North Carolina to win by double digits has to be convincing. The Tar Heels average more than 74 possessions a game; on Saturday, Virginia limited them to 59 possessions.

This week puts Virginia back in the national conversation. Outside of Michigan State, Duke and Villanova, it’s a crapshoot. And the Cavaliers are absolutely in the mix.

Under Bennett, Virginia is always going to do two things: control the tempo and play defense. And right now, the Cavaliers are doing that better than anyone in the country. They rank No. 1 in scoring defense by a landslide. They rank No. 1 in defensive efficiency. They rank No. 351 in possessions per game -- fewest in the country. Just how Bennett wants it.

Their talent doesn’t jump off the page at you, but it never has at Virginia. The Cavaliers have everything they need. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome are shot-makers from behind the arc, while Devon Hall has come on strong lately (12 points against Virginia Tech, 16 points against North Carolina). Rutgers transfer Nigel Johnson doesn’t have gaudy numbers, but he’s more dynamic than most guys on the Cavaliers. He brings some unpredictability to the offensive end and can also get after it defensively.

Isaiah Wilkins is one of the best defensive players in the country, and Jack Salt does the little things down low. De’Andre Hunter is a solid two-way player. Mamadi Diakite can block shots.

They’re not a perfect team by any means, of course. There’s no Malcolm Brogdon on the team, a player who can consistently create his own shot and get a bucket with the clock winding down, but that hasn’t been an issue yet. And there is always the potential of Virginia going cold and allowing a lesser team to stay in the game because of the low number of possessions.

There are always going to be people who don’t believe in Virginia, mostly due to the Cavaliers' style of play, how it’s not perceived to be aesthetically pleasing. But Bennett doesn’t care, nor should he, since it’s delivering results.

At the NCAA tournament last season, Bennett was asked about Virginia’s identity -- and he defended it.

“We are who we are,” he said at the time. “I think it’s OK to make guys defend. That’s going to carry over their professional career. I try to teach them to play the game the right way and whatever gives us a chance to win. But if someone doesn’t think it’s for them, I make no apologies for how we play. It’s our way.”

After this week, Bennett should believe in it more than ever.

After a “subpar” -- by Virginia standards -- season, the Cavaliers are back.