CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Even after seeing its 13-game winning streak end in an overtime loss to Maryland in its regular-season finale, Virginia heads to the ACC tournament as the top seed with a 16-2 record in league play.
On one hand, that would seem to make the sixth-ranked Cavaliers the favorites to cut down the nets at Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina. But on the other hand: Virginia hasn't won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in 38 years, hasn't so much as reached the semifinals since 1995 and has lost 18 of its last 22 game in tourney play.
It's not just opponents the Cavaliers have to overcome, but history, too. That's why several players said the loss Sunday may have come at the right time.
"I hate calling losses good losses, but if there ever a time to have a good loss, this might have been the best one," forward Akil Mitchell said before Virginia practiced on Tuesday.
Guard Malcolm Brogdon said it was a "little bit of a wake-up call" for Virginia.
"We were living on a high a little bit," said Brogdon, Virginia's scoring leader with a 12.6 average and No. 2 rebounder (5.6). "We hadn't lost in a while and it's good when you're humbled right before do-or-die time."
Brogdon, who made the All-ACC second team, believes the Cavaliers earned respect by matching the league record for victories in a season, but added: "I do not feel like the favorite at all. ... I always feel like my team is underestimated regardless of what we do, what we accomplish. It's good. It keeps you humble. It keeps you hungry."
And, the Cavaliers hope, also keeps them focused in their bid to buck history.
"All the guys here are underdogs and we all have underdog mentalities, and for teams to be excited to play us means we just have to bring it. Our margin for error is much smaller now," Mitchell said.
"I feel like every guy in this locker room, every guy on this team feels like we have a chance to win when we're playing our style of basketball and doing it the right way," he said.
That way starts with defense. Virginia led the nation by holding teams to 55.4 points per game and won 12 of its 16 league games by 10 points or more. It's only other ACC loss was by 69-65 at Duke, a game decided in the final seconds.
Coach Tony Bennett, named the ACC's coach of the year on Tuesday, has lost four straight tournament games since the Cavaliers beat Boston College four years ago, and wants to see that drought end.
"You're not going to change who you are, but you really want to play well in this and advance," Bennett said. "That's kind of the challenge that's in front of us, that we haven't gone on in this."
So, too, does Joe Harris, who along with fellow senior Mitchell gets his last crack at winning a game in the tournament, and maybe a chance at ending another long drought in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers' outright ACC title was their first since 1980-81, when Ralph Sampson was a sophomore.
Harris, though, was quick to halt any trophy talk just yet.
"I'm more concerned with getting past the first round," he said.
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