U.Va. enters defining stretch after rout of Virginia Tech

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UVa point guard on defending Erick Green

CHARLOTTESVILLE — A routine thrashing of its last-place rival complete, Virginia enters a two-week stretch that likely will answer the most-asked and perplexing question of its season:

Are the Cavaliers NCAA-tournament worthy?

Virginia certainly looked the part Tuesday night, routing Virginia Tech for the second time in less than a month, this time 73-55 at John Paul Jones Arena.

But the Hokies are an easy mark these days. They have one credible player, Erick Green, and Tuesday was their seventh consecutive defeat, the program's worst skid since a 10-gamer in 2002 under Ricky Stokes.

Green leads the nation in scoring and managed 22 points Tuesday, but he missed 13-of-17 shots from the field while harassed by Jontel Evans.

When Green struggles, Tech (11-13, 2-9 ACC) is helpless.

But as Hokies coach James Johnson told me as he strolled toward the team bus, the game was more about Virginia than Tech.

"That's a real good basketball team right there," Johnson said. "Real good."

Indeed, Virginia (18-6, 8-3) is a half-game behind second-place Duke (21-2, 8-2) in the league standings and is 7-1 since dropping consecutive games at Wake Forest and Clemson.

The Cavaliers, per usual, defend fiercely, and now a balanced inside-outside offense that also includes the occasional fast break has elevated them far above the seventh-place status media predicted during preseason.

With a career-high 26 points and five 3-pointers, Joe Harris provided the perimeter component Tuesday. Akil Mitchell's 17 points and eight rebounds, plus four driving buckets by Evans, were the interior complement.

And don't look now, but the allegedly transition-averse Cavaliers outscored the Hokies 8-0 on fast-break points.

"A nice blend of offense going on," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.

"Joe finally has that killer mindset that we've wanted him to have since last year," Evans said.

The ACC's most accurate 3-point shooter, Harris is building a strong case for first-team all-conference. If he makes it, he and Mike Scott, a first-teamer last year, would become the first different Cavaliers to make the squad in back-to-back seasons since Richard Morgan in 1989 and Bryant Stith in '90.

Both of those Virginia teams advanced in the NCAA tournament. Will this one make the bracket?

By mid-February of most seasons, the ACC's third-place team is virtually secure. This is not most seasons.

Indeed, for Virginia, Tuesday was virtually must-have.

Sure, the Cavaliers are 6-0 against the Rating Percentage Index's top 100. They bested Wisconsin and Maryland on the road, Tennessee, Florida State, North Carolina and North Carolina State at home.

Good luck finding another so-called "bubble" team unscathed against the top 100. There aren't any.

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