RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The questions hovered around Virginia to start the season.
Have the Cavaliers seen their best Final Four chances under Tony Bennett pass them by?
Can they overcome the loss of so much veteran talent in recent years?
More jarringly, can they even finish in the top half of the Atlantic Coast Conference?
Yet here the Cavaliers are, rolling along with a No. 2 national ranking, a perfect ACC record and 10 straight wins in late January. It’s a sign of the sturdy foundation to Bennett’s program, which hosts No. 18 Clemson on Tuesday night then visits fourth-ranked Duke to headline this week’s AP Top 25 schedule.
“As everybody says, it’s really true: you embrace the challenge and it’s next game, the next one,” Bennett said Monday of his team’s winning streak, “and you don’t get too carried away with what happened in the past or what’s in the future. Can we win this battle in front of us? I think that’s the healthiest way to always approach it.”
Virginia (18-1, 7-0 ACC) swept the ACC regular-season and tournament titles in 2014, won the regular season in 2015 and played in the tournament final in 2016. The Cavaliers also earned two No. 1 NCAA Tournament seeds during that span, with the 2016 team — led by future NBA rookie of the year Malcolm Brogdon — making it all the way to the Elite Eight before a late collapse ended their Final Four hopes.
Last year’s team had 11 losses and an ugly 39-point output in an opening-weekend NCAA Tournament loss to Florida. And this year’s team was picked to finish sixth in the ACC after losing four-year starting point guard London Perrantes and had no players named to the preseason all-conference teams.
So how is Virginia sitting in this position? Defense continues to be the calling card, with the Wahoos leading the country in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings (83.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) through Sunday’s games.
As for offense, sophomore Kyle Guy (15.3 points) and Devon Hall (12.6 points) are in leading roles while redshirt freshman De’Andre Hunter is averaging 10.6 points in ACC play off the bench entering the Clemson game.
Virginia’s only loss so far came at No. 7 West Virginia on Dec. 5.
LIGHTER SCHEDULE: Virginia appears in half of this week’s four games matching two ranked teams.
Fifth-ranked Kansas (16-3, 6-1 Big 12) looks to stay in control of its league race when it visits No. 12 Oklahoma (14-4, 4-3) and freshman Trae Young, the nation’s scoring and assists leader, on Tuesday. Two days later, No. 3 Purdue looks for a 16th straight win when it hosts No. 25 Michigan (17-5, 6-3 Big Ten).
The Boilermakers (19-2, 8-0) have won three straight Big Ten games by at least 23 points for the first time in school history.
WILDCATS’ ROAD BACK: Kentucky slid out of Monday’s poll after two Southeastern Conference losses last week, dropping John Calipari’s Wildcats out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since March 2014 and snapping a 68-week streak in the poll.
Kentucky (14-5, 4-3 SEC) will get a marquee matchup this week to potentially climb right back in the poll, hosting Mississippi State on Tuesday night then visiting West Virginia on Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
“It’s all fixable,” Calipari said. “I’m the coach at Kentucky, this is what you do. I’m not shying away from it, it’s not overwhelming me, I’m not panicked.”
WATCH LIST: Like Kentucky, Miami (14-4, 3-3 ACC) fell out of this week’s poll but has a good chance to make it a brief absence.
The Hurricanes, ranked 25th last week, were the leading vote-getter among unranked teams. They’ll host Louisville on Wednesday then visit Florida State, a pair of ACC teams that have both been ranked earlier this season.
Also, keep an eye on Kansas State. The Wildcats (15-5, 5-3 Big 12) beat ranked opponents Oklahoma and TCU last week, then won at Baylor on Monday night. They host Georgia on Saturday.
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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap