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Road to the ACC Title: Can Virginia repeat as league champions?

STL previews UVa's 2015 ACC Slate

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

To say that Virginia dominated the Atlantic Coast Conference last year would be a gross understatement. The Hoos won 16 regular season games to claim the regular season title outright, and eventually the ACC tournament championship. In the process, UVa became the first ACC champion to defeat every league opponent at least once since the 2006 Duke Blue Devils.

Virginia wasn’t just winning games last year; it was destroying anyone and everyone in its path. Twelve of UVa’s 16 ACC wins came by double digits, including seven contests that were decided by 19 points or more. Call if "Cavalanche," "packline defense," or other teams big mystified by Joe Harris’ smile, but however you slice it, what Virginia accomplished last winter was truly remarkable.

The Cavaliers will look to defend their league crown, but in order to do so, UVa will need to conquer a whole slew of challenges. Virginia will face everything from brutal stretches, to new coaches, to venues that that the Cavaliers have not played their best basketball in in the past. The road Greensboro doesn’t begin to January, but why wait? Let’s take a closer look at what UVa will be up against once the calendar flips to the year 2015.

House of Horrors:

Virginia will open conference play on January 3rd at the Bank United Center in Corral Gables Florida. UVa will face a much-improved Miami team in a venue that has not been kind to the Cavaliers. The Wahoo are 0-5 in the Bank United Center, suffering a few grueling losses to the Canes on their home floor. In 2011, Virginia blew a late seven-point lead and dropped a 70-68 decision in overtime. Two years later, UVa had then-second-ranked Miami on the ropes, but allowed the Hurricanes to score twice in the last four seconds, and left South Florida with an ugly 54-50 loss. The Wahoos thumped Miami in Charlottesville last year, but Jim Larranaga’s troops are much improved, and the Canes will be amped up for a chance at a resume’ win. Virginia might be 0-5 in the Bank United Center, but Tony Bennett is 5-0 n ACC openers… something’s gotta give.

UVa will also look to break a 15-year drought at Wake Forest on February 25th. More on the Deacs in the next section….

New Faces, New Places:

Virginia will face three new league coaches this year, and will see two of them in the month of January. The Cavaliers will get their first taste of new Boston College head coach Jim Christian on January 17th, when the Hoos head north to the Conte Forum. Christian arrives in Chesnutt Hill after spending the last two seasons at the head of the Ohio University bench. The new head Eagle will take on a major rebuilding job at BC, but will be aided by the presence of junior point guard Oliver Hanlan. The Hanlan-London Perrantes matchup will be one to watch. Christian may be new, but he will joined by former Maryland assistant coach Scott Spinelli.

Eight days later, UVa will head to Blacksburg to battle instate rival Virginia Tech, led by new head coach Buzz Williams. While Christian will be rebuilding at BC, his job isn’t nearly as tough as the one facing Williams. The former Marquette skipper will inherit a Tech roster with little talent, and even less experience. It will be an uphill climb for Williams, but that is where he is most comfortable. While at Marquette, his teams embraced the underdog role when squaring off against the top teams of the Big East, and that’s the kind of mentality that he hopes to bring to Blacksburg. On paper, this looks like an easy UVa, win, but the Wahoos will need a better shooting performance than last year’s game at the Cassell, if they hope to win by the margin that they should. Virginia will welcome the Hokies to John Paul Jones Arena for senior night on February 28th.

Danny Manning is the third new coach in the ACC, and the Cavaliers will get two cracks at his Wake Forest club this fall. UVa will host the Demon Deacons on February 14th, and will head south for the return match just 11 days later. Manning takes over a Wake Forest program that has not had a lot to cheer about in recent years. The Deacs suffered four straight losing seasons under head coach Jeff Bzdelik, and Manning will be tasked with rebuilding the Wake fanbase, along with the basketball program, Like the Bank United Center, Wake’s Lawrence Joel Memorial Coliseum has not been kind to the Cavaliers for the last two decades. Bennett has only been there twice, but those trips resulted in arguably two of the worst ACC losses of his UVa career.  Manning and Bennett are the only ACC coaches that played in the NBA, all though Manning’s career lasted a little bit longer.

Embrace the Pace:

While Virginia will be able to ground most ACC opponents, the Cavaliers will face two teams that share Bennett’s love of half-court basketball. Virginia will play Clemson and Pittsburgh at John Paul Jones Arena, in two games that will likely not be for the faint of heart.

UVa will welcome Clemson to the hook on January 13th, for its second ACC home game of 2015. The Cavaliers and Tigers both ranked in the top 20 nationally last winter in defensive efficiency, as Bennett and Clemson coach Brad Brownell pride themselves on not allowing teams to dictate the pace of the game. Virginia’s four-point win at Clemson last year was a classic battle between two teams that value every possession, and make their opponents earn everything on offense. In that game, Clemson’s K.J. McDaniels totaled nearly half of the Tigers’ points, but fortunately for Virginia, the big man now plays for the Philadelphia 76ers.

While Clemson will be a battle in the half court, it pails in comparison to what will likely be a street fight against Pitt on February 16th. Virginia’s offensive and defensive game plan is designed to slow teams down and throw them out of their comfort zones, but that is exactly where the Panthers want to be. Year in and year out, Pittsburgh is one of the top defensive teams in the nation, as head coach Jamie Dixon’s troops thrive off of grounding their opponents. If this year’s meeting is anything like last season’s games, the teams are in for a real struggle, and the fans are in for a real treat. Virginia manhandled most of its ACC opponents last year, but that was not the case against Pittsburgh. In round one, the Panthers held Virginia scoreless for the final eight minutes of regulation, before Malcolm Brogdon stunned the crowd at the Peterson Events Center with a game winning three-pointer with one second remaining. The rematch in the ACC Tournament was another low-scoring blood bath, which saw Anthony Gill knock down a pair of clutch free throws, and Justin Anderson seal the three-point win with a pivotal block in the final seconds. This Big Monday nationally televised contest will feature two of the ACC’s strongest and deepest backcourts, with Perrantes and Brogdon representing Virginia, and Cameron Wright and James Robinson carrying the flag for the Panthers.

UVa plays Georgia Tech on February 14th, and will have a little more than 48 hours to get ready for this pivotal ACC game.

Tough Stretches:

While Virginia will be the heavy favorite in most ACC games, the Wahoos will face two brutal stretches that will likely define the season. The first such challenge is a an eight-day gauntlet that features home games with Duke and Louisville, with a Big Monday game at North Carolina sandwiched in between.

Virginia will have six days off between the Virginia Tech game and its January 31st home date with the Blue Devils. Duke and UVa have split the last four meetings, and each game has come down to the final minutes. The 2015 rendition of the rivalry has almost too many storylines to count. The game will be a rematch of the 2014 ACC Championship game, which was one by the Cavaliers in the state of North Carolina. It will also be Coach K’s return to John Paul Jones Area, two years after the Hall of Famer complained about the building’s lack of security when UVa fans stormed the court. In addition, it will be Virginia’s first and maybe only taste of five-star freshman Jahlil Okafor. The 6-11, 270 blue chipper is getting ACC Player of the Year buzz before even playing his first colligate game. Okafor will be joined by the nation’s top recruiting class, which will attempt to conquer Bennett’s pack-line defense for the first time. It will be the Blue Devil rookies squaring off against Virginia’s juniors in what should be an absolutely insane atmosphere.

While the Hoos will have plenty of time to get ready for Duke, the Hoos might need to get on the bus right after the game to head to Chapel Hill. UVa will make its first two-day turnaround of the year when it faces UNC on the road. Virginia will look for its third win in the last four tries against North Carolina in front of yet another national television audience. Virginia has handled UNC at John Paul Jones Arena in recent years, but games in the Dean Dome have brought about different results. The Wahoos’ last trip to North Carolina saw the Heels put up a remarkable 92 points against UVa’s vaunted defense. In the past four years, Bennett’s teams have controlled the tempo in nearly every contest, but that Carolina game was an exception. The Tar Heels love to get up and down the court, and will he doing everything they can to speed up the Cavaliers. The contest will be a battle of the ACC’s two premiere point guards, in Perrantes and preseason All-American Marcus Paige. This will be the only meeting between UVa and UNC, making it a huge game for tiebreaker purposes.

Virginia will conclude the stretch against new ACC "rival" Louisville on Saturday, February 7th. It will be Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino’s first trip to John Paul Jones Arena. There is no doubt that the Hoos will be exhausted from their battles with the blue bloods, but UVa will face a whole new animal in the Cardinals. UL has a different full-court press for just about every situation, and Perrantes, Brogdon, and the rest of the guards will need to put their best foot forward to handle the pressure. Virginia will also see Louisville’s Montrezel Harrell for the first time. In year’s past, Akil Mitchell would be the ideal candidate to guard Harrelll, but Bennett and company will need to formulate a plan to shutdown the talented scorer. If College Gameday does not come to Charlottesville for Duke, there is a great chance that Reece Davis, Jay Bilas, and company will be here the following week for Louisville.

Gauntlet number two will tip off with yet another stretch in which UVa has two games in three days. Virginia will entertain Virginia Tech on February 28th, and will make its first trip to the Carrier Dome as ACC members just two nights later. Last year’s battle with Syracuse was for the ACC regular season title, and the Hoos came out on top. Rest assured Orange head coach Jim Boeheim has been looking forward to the rematch ever since. It will be a classic battle between a man-to-man defensive squad squaring off against a zone team. The best way to beat a zone is to shoot over it, and the Hoos did that by shooting nearly 60 percent in the second half of last year’s game. The Cuse may have lost most of its 2014 rotation, but as long as Boehiem is still there, the Orange will be a force to be reckoned with on both offense and defense.

Virginia will conclude it’s tough stretch and the regular season five days later at Louisville. UVa won seven of nine ACC road games last winter, but the Hoos must travel to UNC, Syracuse, and now Louisville this year. This game could have major ACC and NCAA Tournament seeding implications, and it will be interesting to see how each coach adjusts after seeing one another for the first time several weeks before.

The Bottom line is that Virginia is no longer a secret, and the Hoos will get everybody's best shot. Before ACC play gets starts up, the Hoos will need to navigate through a difficult non-league schedule that features five games away from home before Christmas. We'll see if the Cavaliers can hit their stride before January this fall, but either way, it should be another incredible ride.