Four ACC teams were considered to be among the nation's biggest disappointments at the start of league play a month ago.
Boston College and Notre Dame have continued to flounder. Maryland has remained a shade above mediocre. And then there's Virginia, which has emerged from its non-league struggles and become perhaps the biggest threat to first-place Syracuse in the rapidly thinning ACC title race.
The Cavaliers cemented their place in the ACC pecking order Sunday against third-place Pittsburgh with a dramatic 48-45 victory that came down to the final possession.
With 9.1 seconds remaining and the score tied at 45, Virginia point guard London came up court and looked for star Joe Harris coming off a staggered screen. Harris stumbled on his curl, but trailing Harris around the screen was Malcolm Brogdon, who took Perrantes' pass and buried deep last-second 3-pointer to give the Cavaliers a critical road win.
Virginia's victory improves the Cavaliers to 8-1 in the ACC, two games clear of third-place Duke and Pittsburgh. The Cavaliers are done with both the Blue Devils and Panthers and will get their lone shot at Syracuse on March 1 in Charlottesville in a game that could determine the ACC title.
As for Pittsburgh, this loss is the Panthers' latest failure against quality competition.
Though the Panthers still have a gaudy 18-4 record and high marks in efficiency-based ratings systems, much of that is a result of a tissue-soft non-league schedule. They've lost to the four RPI top 50 opponents they've faced and their best win is a neutral-court victory over a Stanford team likely to be on the bubble in March.
Pittsburgh never trailed Virginia by more than three points the entire game Sunday, but the Panthers were done in by ice-cold shooting against the Cavaliers' pack-line defense. They shot only 31.9 percent from the floor, a nightmarish offensive performance highlighted by star Lamar Patterson's 3 of 14 performance.
The defensive success is characteristic of why Virginia has improved since the start of league play. The 0.86 points per possession the Cavaliers are allowing against ACC opponents is actually less than they gave up in non-league play against supposedly less formidable competition.
Virginia has also benefited from more consistent play from Harris, a preseason All-ACC selection who had been erratic in non-league play. Harris has scored in double figures in all but one of his last eight games, providing support for Brogdon and the rest of the Cavaliers' balanced offense.
When Virginia was losing to Tennessee by 35 and to Green Bay, Wisconsin and VCU in the non-league season, it seemed the Cavs might struggle to make the NCAA tournament let alone contend in the ACC.
One month later, the Cavs are a surefire NCAA tournament team and the best bet left to take down Syracuse in the ACC.