The biggest question in the wake of Justin Anderson fracturing his finger eight days ago was how big an impact his absence would have on Virginia.
Could the Cavaliers retain first place in the ACC and stay on pace for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament without their second-leading scorer? Or would they show enough slippage to give other teams a chance to swoop in and take advantage?
While there were disconcerting stretches during narrow victories over NC State and Wake Forest last week, Virginia's 61-49 win over previously surging Pittsburgh on Monday night was a big step in the right direction. The second-ranked Cavaliers led for all but the game's opening two minutes, limiting the typically efficient Panthers to 38.9 percent shooting and scoring just enough themselves to maintain at least a two-possession lead.
Virginia's victory sent a message the Cavaliers won't let Anderson's 4-to-6-week absence spoil everything they've worked to attain even if they still clearly need the 6-foot-6 wing back at near full strength in order to make a deep NCAA tournament run.
With five games left in the regular season, Virginia (24-1, 12-1) holds a two-game lead over second-place Notre Dame in the ACC standings with Duke also two games back in the loss column. Neither the Irish nor the Blue Devils realistically can lose a game the rest of the way if they hope to dethrone the Cavaliers, especially considering Tony Bennett's team is already done with the toughest part of its schedule.
The only matchup with an NCAA tournament-bound team left on Virginia's slate is a visit to Louisville on March 8 in the regular season finale for both teams. Visits from Florida State and Virginia Tech don't seem particularly daunting, though road games against Wake Forest and Syracuse aren't gimmes.
Virginia can lose one game and still be assured of an outright ACC title. The Cavaliers can lose two and still feel very good about their chances for a No. 1 seed. They've already beaten five RPI top 30 teams so far this season — VCU, Maryland, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Louisville — four in true road games.
What Virginia appears to miss about Anderson most is his 48.4 percent shooting from behind the arc. The Cavaliers were 6 of 31 on threes in their first five halves without Anderson before sinking 5 of 13 against Pittsburgh on Monday night.
Only Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes have attempted more than 50 threes this season, and neither have made even a third of their attempts. Evan Nolte has been a capable outside shooter in previous years, but the 6-foot-8 forward went 0-for-5 on threes Monday night and is now shooting 25.6 percent on deep balls this season.
Anderson is also a dangerous slasher and a standout wing defender, but Virginia is better equipped to absorb his absence in those areas. Brogdon, Perrantes and Anthony Gill have each shouldered a greater burden the last three games.
Virginia's timetable for Anderson's return suggests that he'll return sometime between its regular season finale at Louisville and the second week of the NCAA tournament. The Cavaliers need to hope for something closer to the best-case scenario rather than the worst.
They'll be hard-pressed to improve on last year's Sweet 16 run without Anderson, but they've shown they can play without him in the short term without backsliding too much.
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