Cavs look for big win against Wolverines

November, 29, 2011
11/29/11
9:52
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If a team can finish third in the ACC, it should make the NCAA tournament.

Yet, that position has never been more wide open than it is this season.

North Carolina and Duke are the class of the league once again. Nothing over the course of the first three-plus weeks of the season has proved that theory wrong.

But the third-best team? It's wide open.

Florida State failed in the Battle 4 Atlantis to prove it deserves that spot at this juncture, losing two games to Harvard and Connecticut. Virginia Tech and NC State are more than capable of making a run at No. 3 based on their talents and overall work ethic this season.

The team that will be the most intriguing to watch during the ACC-Big Ten Challenge could be Virginia.

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Tony Bennett
AP Photo/Andrew ShurtleffTony Bennett's Cavaliers face a big test versus Michigan tonight.

The Cavaliers host Michigan on Tuesday night (ESPN2 and ESPN3, 7 ET) in a game that won't steal any headlines away from Duke at Ohio State. But it's important to the Cavaliers.

Virginia is 5-1, but it missed out on a chance to play Marquette in the title game of the Paradise Jam because of a stunning two-point loss to Mountain West bottom-feeder TCU. That put the Cavs in the losers bracket, where they at least managed to beat Drexel and Drake.

But Michigan will be their first power-six opponent this season. There aren't many other chances to impress in the nonconference, as Virginia plays at Oregon and visits LSU -- one of the worst teams in the SEC. That means the Cavaliers are going to have a light nonconference power rating, and it will put even more pressure on them to do exceedingly well in the ACC.

That's why beating Michigan will be as critical a game as the Cavs will play this season.

"It's an absolute barometer,'' said Virginia coach Tony Bennett. "It seems like there is a lot of balance from three to seven or eight or whatever the number is [in the ACC].''

The Wolverines played well in the Maui Invitational, losing only once to eventual tournament champ Duke. Michigan is getting spirited play from point guard Trey Burke and guard Tim Hardaway Jr. The Wolverines look like they've survived the loss of Darius Morris and are ready to challenge Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan State for a top-two Big Ten finish behind Ohio State.

"This will be a great test for our defense,'' Bennett said. "It can be a great momentum [game]. But in college basketball it seems like every game you better be ready to play, or you'll be in trouble. Look at Norfolk State taking Marquette to the buzzer. There are so many close games so far.''

Virginia has had solid play from returning big man Mike Scott, who was out for most of last season with a foot injury. Scott leads the team in scoring and rebounding. The issue for the Cavaliers is the health of senior guard Sammy Zeglinski. Zeglinski labored through a sprained ankle in the Virgin Islands that Bennett said was reinjured during the Green Bay win Friday.

"That's a big one for us,'' Bennett said.

The Cavaliers blew out Green Bay (Bennett's alma mater) by 26 points. The issue for Virginia against Michigan will be turnovers. The Cavaliers had 19 in their loss to TCU. Michigan will try to force the tempo on Virginia and speed up the game a bit. If that happens, the Cavaliers must take care of the basketball.

"Playing Michigan will be a great opportunity for us, but it's not like football,'' Bennett said. "This is a great opportunity for us to get a team like this on our home court. This is a well-coached team. This will be a great test for our defense.''

How Duke and North Carolina do against Ohio State and Wisconsin, respectively, doesn't matter much for the ACC's perception. How the rest of the league does will give it a true read. Florida State can't be expected to win at Michigan State. But if Virginia can knock off Michigan, it will help the overall perception/power rating of the ACC and do wonders for the Cavaliers. If they lose, Virginia won't have another guaranteed opportunity against a team that will be in the NCAA tournament, save Duke and North Carolina, the rest of the season.

That's how important this game is to Virginia's overall perception as a potential NCAA-bound squad.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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